Mörike-Lieder (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Sviatoslav Richter)*
This record begins and ends with bursts of clapping as prelude and postlude. The former sounds coolly polite, the latter warmly enthusiastic; which may well be the progressive reaction of many other listeners. But that is about all we hear of any audience; for the rest of the time they seem to be mot merely spellbound but gagged. This highly selective focus on the artists gives the sound a faintly unreal quality for what is avowedly a live performance. In so hermetically sealed an atmosphere it seems doubly odd to hear the occasional technical imperfection attributable to the excitement and immediacy of the occasion (eg the vivid but rather un-Wolfian parlando effect at the end of Der Feuerreiter).
But any minor blemishes are wholly glossed over by infinitely more moments of the most polished perfection. To begin with the piano, as the songs do; it is no paradox to say that (just as in his earlier partnership with Fischer-Dieskau in the Brahms Magelone-Lieder – HMV Angel SAN291, 11/71) Richter’s accompaniments contain some of the best solo playing ever heard. In ensemble too his technical brilliance allows Wolf’s countermelodies to shine through unobtrusively yet with lambent clarity, an effect which though all too rarely heard can be essential in bringing out the full meaning of the music (eg in Jägerlied, where the render duetting of poem and piano is a Wolfian way of voicing unspoken thoughts of affection). Admirable too is Richter’s realisation of the typical keyboard tremolandi, which are too easily dismissed as mere melodramma. Properly played, as here, they can become as powerful and evocative as the Wagner orchestration that manifestly inspired them; in Richter’s hands they not only paint the new sound-pictures (the distant thunder in Der Jäger) but add fresh perspectives of meaning (as at “von Tiefe dann zu Tiefe” in An die Geliebte). And finally he can on occasion play the virtuoso; his Feuerreiter, like its protagonist, is a real hell-raiser, while in Begegnung his storm-wind accompaniment can only be described as a toured a gale force.
Fischer-Dieskau is of course of comparable stature and attainment in his own blend of technical excellence and expressive range, from the wistful tenderness at the beginning of Peregrina I to the final exultant “davon” of Storchenbotschaft, where the storks take off like a couple of Concordes. About an artist already so high-heaped with floral tributes there can be little to add – except perhaps that there should be something to add. Very well, his interpretations are often flawless; agreed, it is unreasonable to demand increased perfection. But it does seem permissible to suggest a change now and again. Take just one example, from the end of Abschied, which just as effective and spirited a conclusion to this recital as to Wolf’s own Mörike songbook. To everyone’s general satisfaction, the critic is kicked downstairs. As a preliminary to this speeding of the parting guest, he is ceremonially conducted to the head of the stairs by the singer, who lights the way for him; “ich tat ihm leuchten”. Already in the 1957 recording of the Mörike Songs with Gerald Moore, Fischer-Dieskau found it effective to sing this phrase with a prophetic hint of suppressed menace; as the lamp is held up, coming events cast their shadow before. One might object that the critic ought not to tumble to his fate too early; but arguably this nuance is not a permissible shade of meaning but an actual illumination. Even so, it must be said that there is no real textual justification for it; and here it is for the third time on record (and how often in concert?) hardly changed over twenty years. Even such gems can be too set, it seems to me.
One final cavil. Even though pianist and singer are each near-perfect in his own way, I found myself for the most part hearing two separate excellences rather than the unitary performance which comes from long familiarity with this special genre reinforced by long association with a particular partner. So I would recommend this record more to the convinced Wolfian than to the potential convert. What further turns the scales against this new issue is the doleful inadequacy of the text and translation leaflet, in which the seeker after enlightenment is once again fobbed off with those wretched old Peters singing versions. No one could guess from this evidence that Wolf was setting poetry of the highest order. Before, performing the Mörike Songs for his friends, the composer would insist on reading the poems aloud, interspersed with such exclamations as “Ist das nicht zum Heulen schön?”. These translations would have made Wolf howl too, but not because of their beauty. Great art and artists are poorly interpreted by this fake-antique language; a new European policy and outlook are urgently needed.
© gramophone, Nov. 1976 (p. 861)