Fischer-Dieskau and Me - Part Six

by Celia Sgroi  
State University of New York College at Oswego  

Before the end of January 1995, a letter came from the management of the Schubertiade Feldkirch announcing that Brigitte Fassbaender had retired from singing. As had been the case with Fischer-Dieskau, there was no fanfare and no farewell recitals, but as she had been talking about retirement for a couple of years, there was also no great surprise. Nevertheless, I couldn't help feeling that she was retiring too early. It was hard to believe that she would be a director or opera intendant on anything approaching the same level as her singing. As far as that is concerned, the jury is still out.

However, even without Fassbaender, there was going to be a lot going on at the Schubertiade in 1995, including a Fischer-Dieskau master class, which I was very much looking forward to. I had seen him conduct master classes on tape, and he was very impressive. Given that he had cancelled the first master class he had scheduled at the Schubertiade, in 1993, I thought it was high time that the event actually took place.

Fischer-Dieskau's 70th birthday was May 28, 1995. Despite indications of all sorts of activity and celebrations of the fact in Europe, it was not even noted in the U.S., as far as I was aware. I held my own celebration. One of the things that immediately caught my eye as the Schubertiade advertising made its way into my house was the announcement of a full scale biography of Fischer-Dieskau by Hans A. Neunzig. I knew that I would be buying that as soon as I had the opportunity.

Unlike the previous year, I was going to attend a great many recitals during the nearly two weeks I would be at the Schubertiade. I stopped over one day in Zurich to recover from my jet lag before traveling by train to Feldkirch the next morning. When I arrived at the Hotel Rosenberger, I was pleased to find that this year the management had done its homework and prepared for the influx of foreign festival guests, not to mention demanding artists. Upon reaching my room, I found a little plate of fruit and chocolates and a rose to welcome me. From that, I deduced that the Fischer-Dieskaus would find a fruit basket when they occupied their suite, and flowers, as well. Perhaps Julia Varady wouldn't have to spend so much of her time complaining this year.

Once I had gotten myself settled, I made my first trip to the Schubertiade ticket office, now conveniently located in the foyer of the Montforthaus, to see what was for sale and if there had been any alterations to the concert schedule. As I was browsing through the books and CDs, I was greeted by name by one of the Schubertiade staff. I concluded that I must now count as a "regular," a pleasant surprise.

I duly purchased my bound volume of Schubertiade programs and the Fischer-Dieskau biography, and noted that they would be showing a documentary film about Fischer-Dieskau in the Montforthaus every afternoon during the festival. When I went upstairs to take a first look at the exhibition of Fischer-Dieskau's paintings that occupied the main gallery space on the second floor, the film was already in progress in an adjoining room. I made a mental note to be there bright and early the next day to see it. I also bought two collections of F-D's paintings in book form. One looked to be a catalog from an exhibition in Germany. In addition to the reproductions of the paintings, there were four essays in the volume. The second was called DFD: Reiseskizzen and proved to be a privately printed volume of F-D's drawings and watercolors published by Julia Varady in honor of her husband's 70th birthday. They both looked interesting, and I left quite a few Schillings behind that day, much to the satisfaction of the Schubertiade staff.

My first concert of the fortnight was Roman Trekel, accompanied by Oliver Pohl. Trekel sang a program of Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Wolf. Again I was very impressed by Trekel as a Lieder singer, as I had been in 1993. His Schubert group included "Im Abendrot," "Auf der Bruck," "Totengrberweise," and "Meeres Stille," and ended with the best "Der Zwerg" I have ever heard aside from Fischer-Dieskau. Trekel is a young baritone from the eastern part of Germany who is also active as an opera singer at the Staatsoper in Berlin. Although he did not study with Fischer-Dieskau, his singing is very much "school of Fischer-Dieskau." As is the case with most of the present generation of Lieder singers I have heard, Trekel seemed most at home with dramatic or extroverted songs. The second half of his program was Hugo Wolf settings of poems by Goethe, and the three "Harfenspielerlieder," "Prometheus," and "Ganymed" were particularly memorable, as was "Anakreons Grab."

My second day in Feldkirch saw the first of what was to prove to be several cancellations. Angelika Kirchschlager was scheduled to give an afternoon Lieder recital in the Konservatoriumssaal, but she cancelled at the last minute. The management substituted a young baritone named Sebastian Bluth, who was a Fischer-Dieskau pupil in Feldkirch to take part in F-D's master class. I did not hear this concert myself, but the report was that he had a pretty voice and acquitted himself well but did not have much personality. Since he looked very young indeed, that didn't seem surprising.

At the Schubertiade, the custom is that notices of cancellations or program changes are announced on little slips of paper that appear mysteriously in the Schubertiade ticket office. The same day that Sebastian Bluth stepped in for Angelika Kirchschlager, another little slip of paper announced that "Unfortunately Frau Kammersngerin Julia Varady-Fischer-Dieskau cannot take part in the "Grosse musikalische Akademie" on June 18th because of an indisposition. Instead of the planned Lieder, Andras Schiff (who was supposed to accompany Varady in some Schubert songs) will play the Impromptus in A-flat major and F minor, D 935."

I sighed. Everybody who read the notice sighed. How many chances do you get to hear Julia Varady sing Schubert Lieder accompanied by Andras Schiff? As usual, people questioned whether the "indisposition" was real. The skepticism was fueled by the sight of Varady, looking quite healthy, accompanying her husband to a rehearsal of Lazarus, which F-D was conducting. I was sitting at a terrace table of the restaurant next to the Montforthaus late that afternoon when F-D and Varady emerged from the rehearsal, surrounded by a clutch of young singers. F-D lingered for a while to finish talking to them while Varady hovered, looking at her watch and sending signals that they were late. Finally F-D, suddenly aware of the time, grabbed his wife by the hand, and dragged her across the Leonhardsplatz toward the hotel, almost as if it were she who had kept him waiting. I remember thinking: I hope she makes him pay for this when they get to the privacy of their room.

That evening, Andras Schiff played Schubert sonatas in the Montforthaus. He, at least, was healthy and in good form. He had also become the iron man and workhorse of the Schubertiade, turning his hand to everything from solos to chamber music to accompanying. Had they asked him to sing, he probably would have taken that on, too. After the concert, my journalist friend asked him what was the matter with Varady. He merely shrugged and gave that mysterious little smile of his.

The next day began with a recital by Nicolai Gedda, accompanied by David Lutz. Gedda sang songs by Schubert, Grieg, Dvorak, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Unfortunately, it was amply clear from the beginning of the concert that Gedda was in distress. His stance and the stiff way he held his body suggested he was in pain and he actually seemed short of breath. He completed the recital and was very warmly received, but one did not have to be a doctor to know something was wrong. We learned later that he was suffering from chest pains and was returning immediately to Sweden to see his doctor. Since he had also been scheduled for the "Grosse musikalische Akademie," the gala concert in honor of F-D's 70th birthday, we waited to see what substitution would be made. They rearranged the program a bit and used Sebastian Bluth again. This young man was getting a lot of air time as a result of indispositions.

That same evening was the performance of Lazarus. I was sitting in the foyer of the hotel in the late afternoon when Julia Varady emerged from the restaurant with a couple of rolls on a plate. (Her habit appeared to be to raid the salad bar instead of calling for room service. I dare say that they were paying enough for their suite that she felt she could help herself to what she wanted. She did the same thing in the morning with the breakfast buffet. Instead of having breakfast sent up, she came down and chose what she wanted from the buffet and had it carried upstairs. Based on her selections, I deduce that she and F-D mostly lived on bread, yogurt, and fruit. Some of the guests considered this to be rather bizarre behavior, but it seemed that Varady didn't care much what other people thought when she was in pursuit of what she wanted. Some of the criticism seemed to be born of jealousy anywayIt was alleged that she and F-D got served decaffeinated coffee in the morning when no one else could get it. Another source opined that they brought it with them. Be that as it may, the other guests resented it.) As Varady headed for the elevator with her booty, she stopped in the foyer to talk to a couple of the young singers who were performing in Lazarus. And it was thus that I overheard the omninous query: "And how is your husband feeling?" Varady shrugged and said he was feeling a bit better.

Oh hell, I thought. I know what this means. A bit later I met some friends for dinner out on the Leonhardsplatz before the concert and reported my news. Everyone agreed that the outlook was not rosy. Nevertheless, we were still sitting over our coffee when Fischer-Dieskau and Varady crossed the square on their way to the stage entrance of the Montforthaus. He was carrying a large briefcase, and Varady was carrying his dress suit on a hanger. My journalist friend was standing in the square talking to some people when they walked by and she wished F-D luck with his performance. As they were passing by, Varady recognized my friend and went back to say hello. F-D stopped his progress toward the concert hall and watched his wife and his dress suit heading in the opposite direction. Since he was standing quite close to where we were sitting, I could see his pained look quite clearly. Finally, he got his wife and his suit back and could continue on to get ready for his concert.

This was the first time I had heard Lazarus and didn't know what to expect. The singers were all former F-D pupils with the exception of one soprano, Birgid Steinberger. I had heard Matthias Goerne once before, but the rest of them were new to the Schubertiade. I found Lazarus very moving and was so immersed in it that when it ended abruptly in the second act I felt shocked, even though I knew it was a fragment. The male singers, tenors Christian Elsner and Lother Odinius and baritone Matthias Goerne, were particularly impressive. I had never heard F-D conduct a vocal work before, and he was very much in command of an intense, dramatic performance. The only thing that surprised me a bit was the extremely slow tempo. Later, I asked people if Lazarus was always played that slowly and was informed that it was. At the end of the performance, F-D made a point of congratulating all the young singers, complete with hugs and pats on the back. Some people in the audience seemed to think that was unnecessary, but it looked to me as if F-D had found a new flock of children. His manner was very paternal, and the singers seemed to be very comfortable with that.

The next morning, F-D and Gert Westphal gave a reading in the Konservatoriumssaal. On this occasion, the subject was the correspondence between Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. I had done some reading in advance this time and had indulged in a bit of guessing about which letters they would use. As I had thought, they spent a good deal of time on the correspondence relating to the creation of Der Rosenkavalier. Again, the letters were presented as a conversation between the two correspondents. Gert Westphal took on the role of Hofmannsthal and Fischer-Dieskau was Richard Strauss, complete with the hint of a Bavarian accent. At one point, Westphal was reading a letter that contained a description of a gloomy, rainy day. He broke off to say to Fischer-Dieskau: "Have we ever done this when it was not raining outside?" The audience laughed, and so did Fischer-Dieskau, who was so distracted that he lost his place in the reading. The best moment was when Westphal read a letter from Hofmannsthal to Strauss in which he detailed the reasons why Strauss should not become the director of the Wiener Staatsoper. F-D had nothing to say during this lengthy critique, but his face spoke volumes. He started out looking indulgent and self-satisfied, then gradually his expression changed to surprise, then offense, then fury. It was masterfully done, and Westphal had to work hard to keep from being upstaged. (He also looked pleased, I thought.) Both Westphal and F-D were simply superb, and they made a great team. I hoped that they would be performing together again the following year.

One thing I noticed, however, was that all during the performance F-D was unobtrusively wiping his nose, using throat drops, and sipping water. It suggested that he was, indeed, suffering from some ailment. That impression was confirmed in the afternoon when F-D signed autographs in the gallery where his paintings were being exhibited. By that time, he looked like someone who was heavily medicated and highly uncomfortable. You didn't need to be a doctor to see that he had a fever. He seemed to be surrounded by a hot little cloud.

Nevertheless, that evening he and Julia Varady duly appeared and took their places front row center in the Montforthaus for the concert in honor of his 70th birthday. The program was a collection of vocal and instrumental pieces by friends and former pupils of F-D. The first part featured a flock of young singers, including Juliane Banse, Christian Elsner, Lothar Odinius, Matthias Goerne, Roman Trekel, and Oliver Widmer, in songs by Schubert, culminating in the "Contribution to the 50th Anniversary celebration of Maestro Salieri." When the young singers performed the canon "Unser aller Grosspapa/Bleibe noch recht lange da," there was an enormous wave of applause while F-D sat there and laughed. Peter Schreier sang solo songs by Schubert and then came to the edge of the stage to get a hug from F-D. Andras Schiff played Schubert impromptus and also got a hug. Gert Westphal, accompanied by Wolfram Rieger, performed Liszt's melodrama Der traurige Mnch and also got a hug from the birthday boy. The concert also included six songs by Robert Schumann arranged for soprano and string quartet by Aribert Reimann (who was also present) and performed by Juliane Banse and the Cherubini Quartet.

Most of the second half of the concert was devoted to a performance of Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals played by the Scharoun ensemble with a narration written and spoken by Loriot, another F-D friend. This narration, interspersed with references to the famous singer celebrating his "runden Geburtstag," got a great many laughs. The concert ended with the entire ensemble singing the finale to Bach's Cantata 212: "Es lebe Dieskau und sein Haus,/Ihm sei beschert,/Was er begehrt,/Und was er sich selbst wuenschen mag!" The audience responded with thunderous applause and a standing ovation. Juliane Banse descended into the audience to give the birthday boy a bouquet and lead him onto the stage, where a great deal of hugging and kissing ensued, including F-D plowing his way through the entire ensemble of participants to find Andras Schiff lurking on the periphery and give him an enormous bear-hug. Finally, the birthday boy said a few words of thanks to the audience. He also apologized. "I've been sitting here all evening doing what I have always deplored in audiences: I coughed!" This got a laugh, but it was true. No one was surprised when F-D and Varady, bearing bouquets, made their way back to the hotel and promptly went upstairs, skipping the party for the cast.

The following morning, F-D's master class was supposed to begin at 10:30. Assuming the worst, I went to the Schubertiade office to see if it had been cancelled and was told it had not been. Accordingly, I took myself to the appropriate venue at the scheduled time, only to find a line of people waiting to be admitted. After waiting past the starting time, the audience was admitted. Once we were in our seats, Gerd Nachbauer, the director of the festival, appeared. Mr. Fischer-Dieskau had the flu and, because he had to be able to sing (enough to demonstrate) in order to conduct the class as he wished to, he had cancelled. However, Mr. Nachbauer had asked Juliane Banse and Wolfram Rieger if they were willing to take over the class, and they had agreed. If people wanted a refund, they could leave now. If not, the class would begin. Some people got up and left at once. I, like most people, decided to give it a try. However, by the break I could tell that I was not going to find it satisfactory, so I left and turned in my tickets for the remainder of the sessions.

Most people I talked to were astonished and angry about the way the matter had been handled. I talked to a Danish woman from the International Schubert Society who had bought a ticket only that morning and had not been warned that F-D had cancelled. It all seemed very underhanded, and people resented it. Moreover, the substitution of two very young, inexperienced musicians for Fischer-Dieskau seemed absurd. Later, my journalist friend asked Juliane Banse how the substitution had occurred. She told us that Nachbauer had approached her the night before at the cast party after the concert. F-D had cancelled the master class, and he and Varady were leaving that night to drive home. Banse and Rieger had agreed to give it a try but were astonished to find that there wasn't even any background information available about the participants. F-D had taken everything with him when he left. We also talked to a couple of the participants and discovered that they had not learned of the cancellation until the same time that the audience had. One of the singers, a baritone from Switzerland, had withdrawn from the class. All of this seemed really questionable behavior on the part of the festival management. It appeared that F-D, at least, had assumed that the class would be called off, which explained why he had not left the materials on the students. Mr. Nachbauer, however, had apparently decided to try to salvage a little money on the deal by making the substitution.

For my part, I was sorry and disappointed to miss yet another F-D master class, but I couldn't see the point of listening to Banse and Rieger for four days. What intrigued me further was that Mr. Nachbauer was insisting that F-D had not withdrawn from the final concert of the festival and would be back to play the Divertissement a la hongroise and accompany the Kantate fr Irene Kiesewetter with Andras Schiff. Somehow, this seemed highly unlikely. If F-D had the flu on Monday, how was he going to recover enough to come back to Feldkirch to perform on Saturday? I concluded that the cancellation would simply be announced later.

In the meantime, there were more concerts to attend. Peter Schreier and Andras Schiff sang Schubert songs to poems by Rueckert, Rellstab, and Heine, including "Auf dem Strom" with hornist Radovan Vlatkovic. Schreier was not in his best voice (whatever that may be), but Schiff was incredible. When he plays Schubert Lieder, they don't sound the way they do in anyone else's hands. You simply hear things that you don't usually hear, and it's a revelation. However, on this occasion Schreier must have been hearing things he didn't usually hear, or he was having more than the usual number of memory lapses, because singer and pianist often seemed not to be on the same page (literally).

I also heard Oliver Widmer, accompanied by Roger Vignoles, sing a entire program devoted to Schubert's settings of Mayrhofer. Hearing Widmer was gradually becoming a frustrating experience. He always sang everything correctly, in impeccable taste, and with a laudable seriousness, but he was really quite colorless. It was disappointing. The following day, Christoph Pregardien and Andreas Staier performed Die Schne Mllerin, and that was a much more satisfying experience. However, it struck me more forcibly than in the past that most of the time Pregardien sounded a lot more like a baritone than a tenor, and it also struck me that I don't like the Hammerklavier in this music anywhere near as well as a modern piano. Nevertheless, it was one of the better concerts of the festival. Boje Skovhus, accompanied by Helmut Deutsch, also sang Mayrhofer songs and Schumann's Dichterliebe. He had a cold but had been prevailed upon not to add himself to the list of cancellations. So he sang, but he was certainly very limited in what he could do. Since he is not in any case on my short list of impressive singers of Lieder, I can't say the result was very satisfying, but I'm sure that Mr. Nachbauer was happy because he didn't have to refund any ticket money. And Bo certainly looked good, cold or not.

The recital that made the most positive impression on me during the festival was Brahms' Die Schne Magelone, performed by Peter Schreier, Andras Schiff, and Gert Westphal, who read the accompanying narrative. As I have said before, I am not a great fan of this cycle, but on this occasion it really "clicked" for me. Schreier's is not the voice I most want to hear, but his performance was intelligent and imaginative, with all the personality and individuality I missed in most of the younger singers I had heard. Andras Schiff's playing made it clear to me, once and for all, that a pianist of this calibre is required to really make the cycle come alive. And Westphal's reading of the narrative, in turn dramatic and humorous, pulled the entire performance together. This concert, given in the Konservatoriumssaal, had a very intimate, relaxed feel to it, and you could almost imagine that it was being given in someone's living room. The overall impression was incredibly powerful. You just disappeared into the cycle and didn't reappear until it was over, at which time you marveled that the time had passed so quickly. And I have to say that time rarely passes quickly for me when I listen to this cycle, where the songs are long and seem even longer. I count this as one of the best recital experiences I have ever had, and I am very grateful I got to hear it.

Time was marching on toward the final concert of the festival, and there had still been no announcement of Fischer-Dieskau's cancellation. I heard at second hand (through his mother) that Andras Schiff was extremely unhappy because, if F-D did show up, there was going to be the bare minimum of rehearsal time for their performance, and if he was sick, how much practicing would he have done? The prospects for a disaster seemed very great. But that assumed he would come at all, and I just couldn't believe that would occur.

In the meantime, there was the documentary film about F-D and the exhibition of his paintings. The film, produced by Bruno Monsaingeon, was a joint effort of French and German TV stations. Nearly two hours long, it was a lengthy interview with Fischer-Dieskau interspersed with an enormous variety of performance and rehearsal footage from the mid 1950's to the present. It was beautifully done and fascinating to watch and listen to. Every day, a larger number of people showed up to see it. I know, because I saw it several times. In fact, Clara Schiff kidded me when I admitted that I had seen it four times. (She had seen it three times.) And it seemed as if just about everyone who saw it asked whether it was for sale. It wasn't. The Schubertiade had received a copy of the tape from the producer, and that was it. This was said regretfully, because they knew they could have sold many copies of it, had they had them to sell.

It seemed that the exhibition didn't find the same favor with the public as the film. It was an extensive exhibition, around 40 works were on display. I take it that most of the viewers had no idea what sort of painter F-D was and were a bit shocked when they saw what was on display. He has been painting seriously for about 35 years, and he is by no means what one would call a "Sunday painter." I don't feel competent to speak to the artistic quality of what was there, but it was amply clear that the intent was a serious one. The paintings, with the exception of a few portraits, were abstract works. A lot of them were very dark in mood, quite angry and violent, and in many cases had an almost claustrophobic character. Quite a few of them are labyrinths or have the images covered by a network of white or black lines. You get the feeling of someone who feels trapped and is struggling to free himself. Having seen some of his work previously, and being then in the midst of the biography that suggested that he was someone who felt a great deal of inner conflict, I didn't find the paintings a surprise, although they were not very comfortable to look at. Many people, however, seemed quite horrified by them. I got the impression that what they saw did not correspond to their image of Fischer-Dieskau and they were actually shocked. I found them very enlightening, and I began to wonder if the forces that were clearly at work in the paintings were also present in his approach to music.

On the day before the final concert Andras Schiff reported that F-D was, indeed, coming back to play. However, he wouldn't be there until the morning of the concert, so there would be almost no time to rehearse. "We are in deep shit," he said. In fact, F-D did not arrive until midday on the day of the concert. One of the Schubertiade staff said that he had told them that he still didn't feel well and that his wife was even sicker than he was, so he didn't have anyone to drive him to Feldkirch. Mr. Nachbauer had proposed to send a car for him, however, so he finally agreed to come. This did not sound at all promising.

The concert, in honor of the 20th anniversary of the Schubertiade, was another mixed bag of vocal and instrumental works by Schubert. Edith Mathis, who had been scheduled to appear, cancelled because she had bronchitis. Birgid Steinberger took her place, joining Monica Groop, Peter Schreier, Christian Elsner, Olaf Baer, and Robert Holl in a series of vocal duets, trios, quartets, and quintets by Schubert. Andras Schiff and Helmut Deutsch accompanied these, including the "Kantate fuer Irene Kiesewetter," which had originally been slated to be accompanied by Schiff and F-D. Peter Schreier spoke the little melodrama "Abschied von der Erde." And, as promised, Fischer-Dieskau and Andras Schiff played Schubert's Divertissement a la hongroise. This piece opened the second half of the concert. The two performers appeared, neither one looking very happy, and sat down to play. It was pretty bad. F-D played all the notes but not much more than that, and he looked as if he were trying to disappear behind Schiff, which was not easy to do. I would guess that a number of people in the audience could have played the piece better. Finally, it was over. To my surprise, quite a bit of applause greeted this effort. F-D continued to look unhappy, and, I am told, after the obligatory bows he went from the stage directly to his car and left to go home. After the concert, I heard quite a bit of complaining about what had transpired. "Poor Andras Schiff!" Someone said. I didn't feel any sympathy for Andras Schiff. I also didn't feel any sympathy for Fischer-Dieskau. And, after the funny business with the master class, I felt real anger toward Gerd Nachbauer, who seemed to care about nothing but how many tickets he could sell. Nevertheless, the two artists in question had collaborated with him in producing this poor performance. My only sympathy was directed toward the audience, including myself, who had been expected to sit through a substandard performance so that a "name" could sell tickets. It was clear that the whole thing had been considered something of a "party trick" in the first place. F-D was supposed to be a pretty good pianist, and he had done similar things previously with Hartmut Hll and Daniel Barenboim, but the point was that they were charging money for this and it should have been cancelled rather than produce something substandard. Schiff could easily have substituted a solo piece in its place. However, the dollar--or in this case the Schilling--ruled the day.

Of course, the whole thing was enlightening to me, the FiDi fan, in another way. Before this occurred, I would have said with no hesitation that F-D would not have been guilty of such poor judgment. Another illusion shattered. It seemed he was quite capable of making mistakes. Big ones, too.

Nevertheless, there would be other festivals and other performances. In 1996, F-D was scheduled to conduct Das Lied von der Erde. Surely that was a good enough reason to spend another vacation in Austria?

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