When the teenaged version of me was becoming acquainted with classical music, one of the first things that drew my greatest enthusiasm was the music of Franz Schubert, especially his lieder. Schubert’s lieder is a really great way to come to enjoy classical music, as Schubert had a unique way of making the music personal, for both the singer, the pianist, and the listener. Indeed, much of Schubert’s greatest music was written for performance as chamber music – music to be played in drawing rooms, with intimate company, often an experience shared among friends and acquaintances. My youthful exposure to lieder had the effect of making classical music a very personal experience for me. It didn’t matter whether I could understand the language being spoken – the music itself was a universal language, and the singer was the translator.
As such, the performance of lieder calls for certain special interpretive skills. For many years, there were two groups of classical singers, the opera singers and the recitalists. Occasionally an aging opera singer might venture into the performance and recording of lieder (Elisabeth Schwarzkopf comes to mind), and there are a number of singers noted for their recordings of lieder, but who did not do much opera (Elly Ameling was a fine singer who concert material almost exclusively; Fritz Wunderlich had also made his name recording lieder, and was just starting to record full-length opera when he died after falling down some stairs). It was probably inevitable that, as we progressed into an era where recording technology could capture performances with true-to-life audio quality, such a gulf would eventually be diminished or eliminated.
Hence we come to the subject of our discussion, the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who passed away this past May at the age of 86. He was a rare singer who has excelled in both operatic and concert performance. Of course, in the end, he will probably be best remembered for his many great recordings of lieder by the likes of Schubert, Johannes Brahms, Robert Schumann, Hugo Wolf, etc. But I will probably remember him more for the quality of his recordings than for the quantity. I do not remember how I first heard him, whether it was during my youth, after I went to Germany as part of my military service, or even after my return to Carbondale. What I remember is that, at some point, I came to see him as the virtual definition of quality lieder performance. With his clear diction and his ability to portray the emotion of the song, he takes a song and turns it from an intellectual exercise into an emotional experience.
Tonight, we heard his 1985 recording of Schubert’s Winterreise, accompanied by pianist Alfred Brendel.
We then heard some lovely music from the Civil Wars. I’d been hearing some really good things about them for a while (which has certainly been earned, given their win in the Grammy Awards this past year), and was impressed by their material. It took until recently for me to be able to acquire their material, but it is a worthy addition to our rotation. They are hard to categorize (folk? country?), but surely that fits well into this program and our emphasis on hearing material from multiple genres, and the notion that genres can be overly limiting. Plus, how can one not like these gorgeous vocal harmonies? From Barton Hollow, we heard I’ve Got This Friend, C’est La Mort, To Whom It May Concern, and Falling.
I was extremely pleased back last fall to hear of the reissue of an expanded edition of Jimi Hendrix’s Winterland performances. At one point I had possession of the original 1987 Rykodisc single-disc release, and thought it to be as good a representation of Hendrix as could be found. But this more recent release is quite revelatory. You can see quite clearly how each Hendrix performance was a creature in and of itself – we might be given the same song 3 times, but each song receives a different take, and a different approach. I would feel easy in listing this set among the best recording issues of 2011. From the third disk, consisting of performances from 10/12/1968, we heard Sunshine of Your Love, Little Wing and Spanish Castle Magic (the latter two were rarely done in concert).