Zum Liederabend am 16. Februar 1970 in London

The Guardian, 18. Februar 1970


LIEDER singing of quite exceptionally fine quality, deeply moving in its ultimate reaches, was heard at the Festival Hall Monday when the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau gave a recital of songs by Mahler accompanied by Karl Engel, pianist. His later recitals are to be a programme of Schubert and a duet concert with Janet Baker. One does not in fact often hear an evening devoted exclusively to Mahler songs: there are some difficulties in making a sufficiently varied pattern, or so it would seem superficially. I felt, in going, that at least one would somehow be doing penance and amends for the filth which BBC Television had flung at Richard Strauss on the previous night. Here at least would be the decency, not to say the reverence proper to the work of a great composer. No one in this audience at least can have felt unblessed, unhallowed by the performances of the third and fourth Rueckert songs: "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" and "Um Mitternacht", delivered with extraordinary pose, balance, and delicate volume.This is the sort of lieder singing which makes most modern acting, even in the classics, seem the mere child’s play of utterance and selfexpression.

I make it sound solemn and so such great examples of art must always seem. But in "Selbstgefühl" the singer touched that cavalier, rueful, self-mocking modesty which makes his Mandryka in Strauss’s "Arabella" one of the great assumptions of the opera stage and in the first of these "Knabenwunderhorn" songs the close was eyquisitely refined (with beautiful playing by Mr. Engel too, with a lingering pianissimo so gentle we hardly knew when it was gone, not even the throatclearers chiming in). It was in this song too at the line "Nun sing Frau Nachtigall" that we heard the singer open up his voice with the complete, limpid effortlessness (or so seeming) that bespeaks the perfect technician: for whom nothing will appear difficult. For me, I think my pick would be the reflective climax of the second song of the Wayfarer: "Will happiness be mine?" If you know your Mahler you will know the answer, at least as the poet has it. But is it an answer we accept? Lovely occasion.

Philip Hope-Wallace


     Daily Telegraph, 18. Februar 1970     


Breaking heart behind the innocent


Mahler’s songs, from which Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau drew his programme at the Festival Hall, represent the last highly sophisticated chapter in the history of the German lied.

The sophistication lies most often in the fusion of an apparently naïve, archaic language – a kind of musical pre-Raphaelitism – with an Expressionist aesthetic, a combination in harmony with the "Jugendstil" or the German equivalent of art nouveau.

Many of these songs belong half to the theatre, in the sense that the poems are dramatic monologues or vignettes drawn from an imaginary world of simple peasants or children, whom the composer uses as mouthpieces for his own, modern intellectual’s feelings of nostalgia and Weltschmerz.

Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s infinitely subtle art has never been more perfectly deployed.


He was able to convey the breaking heart behind the innocent, folkish melodies by a skilful combination of tense almost unnatural simplicity with sudden outbursts of deliberately exaggerated emotional expression, where Mahler’s harmonies suddenly desert their dreamlike simplicity and the illusion is finally shattered by a dynamic explosion, as in "Erinnerung" and the third of the "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen."

The exquisite refinement of his tone, particularly in the upper range where it is not naturally at its most beautiful, was shown to perfection in two of the best known Rueckert songs, "Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft" and "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen."

Here Mahler drops the mask which he wears in the "Knabenwunderhorn" songs and exposes his extreme sensibility in every suspension, every turn of phrase and every cadence, beautifully shaped and emphasised both by the singer and his admirable accompanist Karl Engel.

Martin Cooper


     Sunday Telegraph, 22. Februar 1970     


On from simple song


Of all the great Lieder singers, Fischer-Dieskau has shown the most interest in extending the familiar frontiers of song. He could fill the Festival Hall for any programme he chooses nowadays; and though his present London visit might have been the moment for a recital of Beethoven’s many littleknown songs (he has recorded a three-volume set for D.G.G.), it is admirable that as well as the ever-welcome Schubertiad last Friday he should choose to share an evening of duets with Janet Baker tomorrow and give his first recital last Monday to Mahler.

Mahler’s early songs have often been written off as a disappointment, and the earliest of all were destroyed by the composer himself, with the remark that he had not yet discovered how to get a large content into a small form. Fischer-Dieskau’s selection, while including the later Rückert settings of 1902, concentrated on the songs of the 1880s when the young Kapellmeister was still trying his creative strength on the heritage of German song as he felt it had descended to him from, especially, Schumann.

There are plenty of Schumannesque fingerprints in these early songs, notably in the sense of how key-patterns could embody the essence of a poem. But for all this conscious model, Mahler was more himself when he threw off immediate example – or rather, had entirely absorbed it – and looked back across the heads of Schumann, Brahms, even Loewe, to the fount of early German song and "Des Knaben Wunderhorn".

Guitars slung on their backs, Arnim and Brentano had travelled through Germany in search of folk songs for this famous collection at the beginning of the 1800s; and the songs’ freshness and wit and charm was to ring in the heads of German composers for a century. Mahler caught the tone partly from his adored Weber, whose songs are strongly coloured by the "Wunderhorn" collection, partly at first hand; but he is of his time in feeling obliged to distinguish in his settings between Gesang and Lied – that is, between the fresh, simple song and something larger and more consciously fashioned into a work of art.

The distinction is sometimes a very fine one, not only between songs in the collection "Lieder und Gesänge" but within them. "Frühlingsmorgen", to a poem by Leander that would have sent Schubert hurrying to his piano, is a Lied that almost achieves the purity of a Gesang; and in so doing it acquires a particular touching quality, beautifully sensed by Fischer-Dieskau, of yearning towards the pristine innocence of German song. "Erinnerung", on the other hand, is a fullblown Lied, Schumann-like in its harmonic manner but purely Mahlerian in its prolonged cry of grief.

Fischer-Dieskau handled this superbly. He is still occasionally capable of allowing his powerful voice to fill a comparatively unimportant word with a huge swell of tone, a curious trait in so vastly intelligent an artist, but there is nowadays a closer watch set upon tone for tone’s sake, especially since the voice has grown a little lighter and higher. There is also greater disciplining of his tendency to bring too much interpretative weight to bear upon simple songs. The blithe little "Don Juan" Fantasy was as charmingly done as the lighter moments in the "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen" cycle.

Whether or no these well-loved songs were originally composed for piano, which is still obscure, they certainly crave the orchestra. So, it must be said, do the other early songs, sometimes directly as when Mahler asks the pianist to imitate a harp od woodwind, almost always by implication. Karl Engel did his best last Monday, but his musicianship does not include the gift for keyboard colour, for suggesting not merely orchestral instruments but all their associations, that we know from Gerald Moore. Mr. Engel is a sharp-eared Lieder pianist, however, and he has the vital gift of sensing the expressive force in Mahler’s rhythms.


John Warrack

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