THE two greatest male singers of the 20th century were, to my mind, Frank Sinatra and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. They could not have been more different it is as hard to imagine Sinatra singing Schubert at the Sands as it would be to picture Fischer-Dieskau declaiming Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's bar ballad One For My Baby but their similarities were remarkable.
For one, they were not only musicians to the core, technically extraordinary and with an instinctive feel for melody, but musical poets their ability to transform words into drama (comedy, too), making them integral and understandable, was a natural talent they must have been born with rather than simply acquired.
Sinatra and Fischer-Dieskau both had lengthy careers and were fine actors (film for Sinatra, the opera house for Fischer-Dieskau). But their true legacy, especially for the millions who never saw them in live performance, is represented by their abundant recordings.
In Fischer-Dieskau's case, there are hundreds and hundreds of them, making him one of the most recorded of all musicians. Most of his vast repertoire of almost 3000 songs, many choral works and more than 100 operatic roles, has been captured on disc.
An English columnist once wrote that Fischer-Dieskau and his tireless accompanist, Gerald Moore, had Schubert held captive in an attic, forcing him to compose still more songs to add to their recording schedule. As it is, Fischer-Dieskau and Moore (who came out of retirement for the project) set down all of Schubert's output for male voice, which easily fills 21 CDs. But Fischer-Dieskau didn't stop there: the lieder of Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Wolf and Richard Strauss were recorded, along with many songs by other composers, including Liszt, Mahler, Loewe, Charles Ives and (intriguingly), the lieder of Friedrich Nietzsche.
He also inspired contemporary composers: Stravinsky, Henze and Benjamin Britten all wrote works with his particular vocal radiance and expressiveness in mind. Indeed, as coincidence would have it, the end of this month is the 50th anniversary of the world premiere of Britten's War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral, England. In 1961, the composer wrote to Fischer-Dieskau to ask "with great timidity" if he would sing the baritone part. He did, and later recorded it. In his memoirs, Fischer-Dieskau wrote of the intensity of that first performance. "I was completely undone I did not know where to hide my face. Dead friends and past suffering arose in my mind."
In opera, Fischer-Dieskau was also an artist. I think particularly of his Hans Sachs in Wagner's Die Meistersinger and his peerless Count Mandryka in Richard Strauss' Arabella a role that could have been written for him, and which he made his own. But Italian opera was also his forte indeed, his farewell performance included an aria from Verdi's Falstaff, as well as the opera's final fugue, Tutto nel mondo e burla (All the world's a comedy). That, Fischer-Dieskau was to recall, was the perfect time to say goodbye.
It is hard to think of another singer (Sinatra apart) as intelligent, cultured and prolific as Fischer-Dieskau.