Lieder (Fischer-Dieskau, Sawallisch)
In Schumann's lieder, the keyboard sings; in Mendelssohn's, a voice is accompanied. But such a melodic line is rarely strong enough to sustain the combined weight of poetic as well as musical expression. So Mendelssohn (perhaps in self-defence) notoriously mistrusted words. He preferred songs without them; and even his lieder tend to be (so to speak) Worte-tight.
Their ideal interpreter would therefore be someone much less consciously articulate than Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, whose verbal orientation here sometimes sounds so misdirected that many of these 40 songs (in quantity nearly half and in quality almost all) suggest sham Schubert or lower-grade Loewe rather than what Mendelssohn meant. A verbal style is arguably out of place in this field of musical pastoral, where the typical song takes a cool quiet look at time, season or scene; a spring dawn, say, or an autumn dusk. In the background are chords or arpeggios, harmonium-or guitarfashion, to match the solemn or light-hearted mood of the foreground melody. Over the years the two keyboard textures merge and blend in alternations of notes with chords, as in Der Mond or An die Entfernte, those most restrained of love-songs. But though the viscosity may vary from aquarelle to impasto, the deep meaning of the music lies always on the surface, in the tradition one might expect from the drawing-room school of Mendelssohn's master, Zelter. Nothing is symbol or word; all is simple and heard.
Its influence is much more subtle and recondite. But Schumann, Franz, Brahms and Wolf are clearly among its major beneficiaries; it offers the first (and some of the best) settings of Des Knaben Wunderhorn; and it may well be among the sources of 19th-century French song-Mendelssohn's first vocal melodies appeared two years earlier than the first so-called mélodies of Berlioz, and from the same publisher. On any interpretation however we are manifestly meant to admire above all the colour, contour and polish of the music. The Fischer-Dieskau approach of going straight to the core of each song, with a satisfying crunch, seems less apt when it comes to a case of wax fruit. One might almost speak of errors of taste.
For example, in Auf Flügeln des Gesanges(otherwise most beautifully flighted and sung) certain words, such as “hüpfen”, are given special salience. True enough, Heine's gazelles are real and leaping. But Mendelssohn's are ideal and floating, and need not be brought down to earth. With such diction, the wings of song are slightly clipped. Again, the long lines that typify the page in Pagenlied are pointlessly bisected by vocal punctuation. Elsewhere verses are omitted (e.g. from Jagdlied or Bei der Wiege) which are really required for the form's sake-no mere formality, in this context. But all the verses of the remorselessly strophic Erntelied are sung; and each time, the already written-out ritenutos of the refrain are drawn out still further, so as to attentuate if not lose the threads of music and meaning alike. In Volkslied too the added gloss of verbal expression is applied against the grain of the surface significance. Similarly Gruss sounds much too sedate for an impulse from a vernal wood, as if the spring had run down. Conversely the “Andante leggiero” of An die Entfernte is taken lightly in what seems to me quite the wrong sense, while Neue Liebe is audibly too fast for this new duo. Wolfgang Sawallisch however plays his part admirably throughout. His sense of discreet but not slavish subordination is genuinely Mendelssohnian in style. But that sense is all too rare in the voice, which tries much too hard to woo and charm the music yet mainly fails to arouse its sleeping beauty.
Of course there is much to admire; but not, in my view, enough which can be unreservedly rated as without blemish or exaggeration, whether in tone, time or taste. It would take a much less accomplished artist than Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to sing these songs with the genteel but unfeigned artlessness for which their admittedly antique art asks.
The Musical Times, Sept. 1972 (p. 876-877) © the estate of eric sams