Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Voice

When I heard that mourners of Whitney Houston (I was not one of them) were calling her The Voice, I had to laugh. The only "The Voice" I've ever heard of in my lifetime was Frank Sinatra, who had genuine claim to the title. Whitney was a part of the popular music movement that destroyed the tradition of great singers mastering the Standards - the great songs by writers like Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmicheal, and Sammy Cahn (to name only a few). Tony Bennett carries on that great tradition, and carries the history of that tradition with him everywhere he is asked to sing.

Yesterday I learned of the death of another great singer deserving of the title "The Voice" - the man who was one of the greatest baritones who ever lived, and who did more perhaps than any other singer of his generation to prolong the life of the art song, and of German Lieder. I mean, of course, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who was almost 87. Like many other people, I first heard him in the immortal Deutsche Grammophon recording of The Marriage of Figaro (see photo), conducted by Karl Böhm. I must confess that I purchased the recording to hear the soprano Gundula Janowitz as the Contessa. But Fischer-Dieskau's reputation had already preceded him. In the 1970s, the classical music station KVOD (1) in Denver was one of the glories of my radio listening experience. In conjunction with a record store called "Music for All", my education in classical music was expanded exponentially by the station's announcers.

In the late '70s and well into the '80s, I bought dozens of recordings with Fischer-Dieskau, particularly his great lieder recordings of Schubert and Mahler. When the day came, in late 2005, that I had to abandon all of those magnificent vinyl recordings, because I simply couldn't afford to ship them to my sister, I was especially saddened to lose all those splendid Deutsche Grammophon records. His voice was a commanding one, one that I find in few other singers (I think of the jazz singer Johnny Hartman) who so dominated the bass/baritone repertoire, even if there really was never much competition in the lower register voices. He single-handedly made the baritone role a dominant one. His performance in Britten's War Requiem helped make that composition so unforgettable. And Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle became one of my favorite pieces precisely because of Fischer-Dieskau's performance.

In an age when classical music sales are either dwindling or falling prey to the ridiculous "crossover" phenomenon, listening to Fischer-Dieskau's recordings are required listening to anyone who cares about culture. Some people can appropriate terms like "The Voice" all they want. You have to have ears to distinguish a real one. It's for singers like Fischer-Dieskau that listening is worthwhile.

(1) As so often happens in the commercial radio market, the frequency, at 99.5 FM, switched abruptly and heart-breakingly to a "classic rock" program. KVOD moved to 92.5FM Insult was added to injury when the station was bought out and moved, unbelievably, to 1280AM. Colorado Public Radio acquired its enormous library of classical recordings, and it was restored to stereo in 2001 at 90.1FM.

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