German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau dies at 86

Singer was instrumental in bringing the piano-accompanied art-song to new generations of classical music lovers.

German baritone Dietrich Fischer- Dieskau, considered the most prolifically recorded male concert singer of all time, died on Friday in Berg on Starnberg Lake, the Bavarian State Opera announced on its website. He was 86 years old.
“The death of Dietrich Fischer- Dieskau is a great loss for the entire music world,” the opera’s administrator, Nikolaus Bachler, said in a statement. “Through his interpretations of vocals he decisively influenced the art of opera singing. Today’s vocals would be unthinkable without the influence of Dietrich Fischer- Dieskau.”
Fischer-Dieskau was one of the most accomplished opera and lied (art-song) singers of the 20th century. During his peak in the 1960s he was admired equally by audiences and peers. He was a pioneer in popularizing the lied genre in the concert hall and was unique in his emphasis on the expressive role of the singer in non-dramatic roles.
His presentation stressed the meaning of the words he sang much more so than that of other singers of his time. Critics claimed his interpretation was sometimes exaggerated, stressing the drama of the words at the expense of the completeness of the musical phrase.
Fischer-Dieskau was born in Berlin in 1925 and began singing at a young age, beginning formal training at 16. He was drafted into the Wehrmacht during World War II and was captured in Italy in 1945.
He returned to Germany in 1947, the year in which he began his professional career by singing Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem on short notice without rehearsing.
At about the same time, producer Walter Legge hired Fischer- Dieskau to sing lied albums of music by Hugo Wolf and Franz Schubert. Both albums were immediately successful.
Legge also teamed him with sopranos Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Irmgard Seefrid, and later with mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig.
In 1951 Fischer-Dieskau recorded his first album with pianist Gerlad Moore, who specialized in accompanying singers. They recorded many additional albums together. In 1972 they compiled the first complete recording of all Schubert music appropriate for the male voice – a monumental task.
“He had only to sing one phrase,” Moore wrote in his memoirs, “before I knew I was in the presence of a master.”
With another pianist, Jorg Demus, Fischer-Dieskau recorded one of the most highly-acclaimed interpretations of Schubert’s Winterreise.
Fischer-Dieskau also recorded much-acclaimed albums of Mahler’s songs with Leonard Bernstein at the piano. In these, his trademark emphasis on the drama of the words resulted in some of the finest performances of Mahler’s works.
Fischer-Dieskau was equally comfortable on the opera stage as he was in the recital hall, and as fluent a performer in Italian as he was in German. He also sang roles in Russian, French and Hungarian, recording the male role in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle under both Ferenc Fricsay and Wolfgang Sawallisch.
Under the baton of Israeli conductor Gary Bertini, Fischer- Dieskau even sang in Hebrew for Stravinsky’s cantata Abraham and Isaac.
He sang roles in Wagner operas at the Bayreuth Festival and Mozart operas at the Salzburg Festival in the late 1950s. He was also a champion of modern music, singing in Berg’s Wozzeck as well as in works by Benjamin Britten, Ernst Krenek, Aribert Reimann and Witold Lutoslawski. He sang in the legendary recording of Britten’s War Requiem, conducted by the composer himself.
His recordings of operas by Italian composers were less successful than those of German operas. His delivery was always intelligent and balanced, lacking, perhaps, the gusto and temperament necessary for the typical male roles in operas by Verdi and Puccini, although he was a remarkably humane and sympathetic Conte in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. Fricsay said about him, “I never dreamed I’d find an Italian baritone in Berlin.”
Fischer-Dieskau retired from the stage in 1978 after recording Reimann’s opera Lear, which the composer wrote at the baritone’s suggestion. He continued singing in recitals until the age of 67, and continued performing as a conductor afterward.
Fischer-Dieskau was also an influential teacher and amateur painter. A series of reissues of his recording on the Deutsche Grammophon label is decorated with cover art based on his paintings.
Fischer-Dieskau won several awards in his life and was hailed as a singer with flawless technique. In a critics’ poll taken by the music magazine Classic CD in 1999 he was ranked the second greatest singer of the 20th century.
His vast body of recordings of music from all eras and his perfect vocal technique make many of his albums “benchmark recordings.” Inevitably, albums recorded by baritones today are often judged against his interpretation as a reference.
Fischer Dieskau was married four times. Of his three sons from his first marriage, the first was a stage designer, the second a conductor and the third a cellist. Since 1977 he was married to the soprano Julia Varady.
Reuters contributed to this report.