Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's interest in conducting began when he was a child, and he studied conducting along with singing. However, he didn't appear professionally as a conductor until midway in his career.
In 1973 Fischer-Dieskau was invited to substitute for Otto Klemperer in a recording for EMI. In the same year he made his concert debut as a conductor with the Camerata Academica Salzburg in Austria. Thereafter, he appeared as conductor with many well-known orchestras in Germany, Israel, the U.K., and the U.S.A. and made a number of recordings before he gave up conducting in September 1976.
After he ended his singing career at the beginning of 1993, Fischer-Dieskau resumed his activity as a conductor. Since then, he has led several well-known orchestras in a number of notable performances, including Schubert's "Lazarus," and Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde". He has also continued to record, although most of the post-1993 recordings have been as "accompanist" to his wife, Julia Varady. So far, two recordings of Verdi arias have been released, as well as one of arias by Richard Strauss, and two of songs, arias, and duets by Richard Wagner. In addition, Fischer-Dieskau has recorded a collection of rarely-heard orchestral works bu Hugo Wolf for EMI.
Why was Fischer-Dieskau drawn to conducting in the first place? It was,
as he explained to an American journalist, a desire to make music in
its broadest sense. Many critics have remarked that his approach to
conducting is similar to his approach to singing-- serious, sensitive,
detailed, and not given to grand gestures for their own sake. Naturally,
the singer who conducts (and thereby steps beyond the boundaries of
his "speciality") is greeted with a good deal of skepticism
by the critics, and perhaps by the public, as well. But several of Fischer-Dieskau's
early recordings, his
with Josef Suk in Prague
Schubert "Fifth Symphony," Berlioz "Harold in Italy," and Brahms "Fourth Symphony" in particular, have achieved a kind of cult status among record collectors. And the recordings he has made since his retirement from singing have been very well received and given the kind of critical evaluation reserved for "serious" conductors.
"The contemporary 'coffee-cup-conductors' always say that if they rehearse everything well, then everything works well on the evening of the concert. I find that boring. It wasn't like that earlier; back then there was a period of time when people said: we won't rehearse at all so that the interpretation will remain fresh. Then people started to rehearse, but at the concert the conductor still faced the challenge of achieving with his eyes and gestures something that hadn't existed up until then. And that was clearly the case with Wilhelm Furtwängler. He was able to transform the orchestra and the audience during a performance-- and that is the objective of a concert." (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, responding to the question: "What is a great conductor?")
"I have seldom felt more anxious about a recording than on the morning of Fischer-Dieskau's first session. I was not worried about whether he would acquit himself creditably; he would never have accepted an assignment which he did not believe he could carry out. I wanted him not merely to go through the sessions and make a record, but to get memorable performances of the two works. Very few people had lived so closely, for so long, with the composer's lieder; I wanted Fischer-Dieskau's Schubert symphonies to be as characteristic of him as his Schubert lieder.
I am positive that none of the anxiety I felt showed obviously when he arrived at the studio and I met him at the front door, but that queer telepathic communication must have been working again, for after a few moments Fischer-Dieskau looked at me, suddenly smiled and said, "Don't worry about the recording, Suvi-- if the first session is a disaster, I shall fly back to Berlin this evening." I stoutly maintained that I was not worried, and now that the actual moment had arrived, I really was not. When I presented Fischer-Dieskau to the New Philharmonia they greeted him with the prolonged and enthusiastic applause orchestras reserve for musicians they respect.
Within a quarter of an hour I realized just what it meant to have an orchestra on the side of a conductor. Fischer-Dieskau's conducting technique was just about adequate. How could it have been otherwise, for until the beginning of the session he had not stood in front of an orchestra and conducted it; any rehearsing he might have done could only have been in private, and perhaps in front of a mirror. His gestures were sometimes ambiguous and his instructions to this or that section of the orchestra were not always precise. But none of this mattered-- the orchestra sensed that he had a clear conception of the 'Unfinished' Symphony and he was able to transmit it to every member of the orchestra. The leader, Desmond Bradley, was a tower of strength, acting, when required, as an interpreter between Fischer-Dieskau and the orchestra, and everyone responded. By the time the break came I knew that this was going to be a very special Schubert B minor. As the leader of the cellos put it, "He's made me play the second theme exactly as he might have sung it." (Suvi Raj Grubb, Music-Makers on Record)
translations and compilations: © Celia A. Sgroi, January 2004