I spent a morning with the great baritone in his Berlin home a couple of years before he died. Fischer-Dieskau was in morose mood. His wife Julia was out teaching, he told me twice, seeming to resent her absence. ‘I did too much,’ he confessed, regretting his dominance in Lieder, a field in which he covered not just German song but English, Russian and French.
Still, sometimes too much is not enough. The present release is a 1989 duet recital he gave with his wife and the pianist Robert Höll at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, expecting that it would be released by one of the big labels. The Wall fell down and the deal never happened. What we have here is a capsule from a forgotten era when an opera audience would sit gripped through an evening of lyrical intimacy, observing the anatomy of a relationship.
The three set of songs are by both Mendelssohns, Felix and Fanny, as well as Cornelius and Schumann. I am instantly struck by how non-dominant Fischer-Dieskau is. He lets Varady set the tone, modifying his harmonies to brushed velvet when she drops to ppp. There are hints of wavering at the top but these are of no significance when a master of this stature sets his mark on a song. Varady is all sweetness and light, appealing to our senses without added sugar and certainly without the warble of big opera roles. Together, they make the love in Schumann’s songs seem somehow less hopeless, and the hope in Mendelssohn less forlorn. This is wonderful duet singing, quite indispensable.
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