Franz Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone, András Schiff, piano (Schubertiade Feldkirche, 20 June 1991, plus 1985 interview with Fischer-Dieskau). TDK DVUS-CODSM F (DDD) TT: 83:00

The legendary German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (b. 1925) made three studio recordings of Franz Schubert’s song cycle, Die schöne Müllerin—two for EMI, and one for DGG, all with the great accompanist, Gerald Moore. That final recording (DGG) took place in 1971. For the next 20 years, Fischer-Dieskau neither performed nor recorded the piece.

In June of 1991, Fischer Dieskau and pianist András Schiff collaborated on a performance of Die schöne Müllerin at the Schubertiade Feldkirch. That performance was recorded by Austrian television. Thanks to the approval of the artists, it has been issued by TDK in honor of Fischer-Dieskau’s 80th birthday.
In many ways, I think it’s best to avoid comparisons of this 1991 recital with the three studio recordings. At the time of the Schubertiade Feldkirche recital, Fischer-Dieskau was 66, and had been performing for almost 45 years. It would be dishonest to suggest that his voice on this occasion comes close to matching the freshness of those earlier renditions. It also takes Fischer-Dieskau a bit of time to warm up, with some pitch difficulties and breath control problems early on. For the most part however, these flaws disappear over the course of the cycle.

Even with all these reservations, I found this Schöne Müllerin to be an extraordinarily moving document. Despite the reduced vocal forces at his disposal, Fischer-Dieskau gives an unforgettable performance. I particularly recommend this DVD to people who view Fischer-Dieskau as an overly intellectual singer, who often italicizes the text and music at the expense of its overall flow. Here, Fischer-Dieskau relies on his gorgeous diction, impeccable legato, and subtle inflection of the text to the greatest effect. Likewise, Fischer-Dieskau’s stage presence manages to find the perfect balance of elegance, dignity, and dramatic involvement. The singer’s facial expressions alone are worth the price of this DVD. My impression of Fischer Dieskau’s interpretation was one of nostalgic recollection, as opposed to a contemporaneous narrative. In that context I found it most compelling, and a highly worthwhile addition to Fischer-Dieskau’s body of recorded work.

The compelling nature of this performance is due in great part to the contribution of Fischer-Dieskau’s accompanist, the superb pianist András Schiff. As in any great lieder performance, the term “accompanist” is inappropriate. Schiff plays exquisitely throughout, with a constant attention to the shifting colors that reflect the cycle’s dramatic flow. It is also clear that Fischer-Dieskau and Schiff view this cycle as almost a duet for voice and piano. Time and again, Fischer-Dieskau and Schiff match the timbres and inflections of their instruments to create almost a single entity. This sense of partnership is reinforced by Fischer-Dieskau’s frequent and often touching glances to his partner.

The straightforward camerawork by Austrian Television complements the understated eloquence of this performance. The sound is excellent as well. The DVD also includes a 1985 interview with Fischer Dieskau by Franz Zoglauer, illustrated by samples of Fischer-Dieskau’s recordings, performances, and paintings. The DVD includes English, French, and Italian subtitles for both the song cycle and the interview. Admirers of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau will find this Schöne Müllerin an inspiring and moving document. For those wishing to hear Fischer-Dieskau in this glorious cycle for the first time, I would first seek out one of the studio recordings, all of which have considerable merit. But in the final analysis, I would urge all admirers of lieder and master singing to give this DVD a try.

K.M. (June 2005)