Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Books in Honor of the 80th Birthday of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

Legendary German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau celebrates his 80th birthday on May 28, 2005. Two new books have recently appeared to commemorate the event.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: Ein Leben in Bildern
Hans A. Neunzig
Henschel Verlag (2005)
ISBN: 3894874996
Price: 34.90 Euros at (approx. $47.00)

I received my copy of this book a week or two ago and have been thinking about how to judge it. It's a large format, almost coffee-table-size, book from Henschel Verlag that combines text with a large number of photos, most of them black and white, with a center section of color reproductions of a selection of DFD's paintings.

Basically, the big attraction of the book is the pictures. It's a great book for anyone who wants lots of pictures of DFD, especially if you don't already have a great many of them. As is the case with most publications about DFD, the more you already know or have collected, the less the book has to offer. There are personal photos, many photos of DFD in opera roles, pictures of concerts and recitals, some
conducting photos, and, as mentioned above, reproductions of paintings, including several shots taken of the exhibtion in Polling (Bavaria) that ran for a couple of months last year.

There are a number of personal photos that were new to me, including a couple of childhood pictures of DFD at around 4 years old, one alone and one with his older brother Klaus, a picture of DFD in Wehrmacht uniform that I had not seen before, and a couple of pictures of DFD's mother. There is also a spread of pictures of DFD with his first wife, Irmgard Poppen, and their two older children. Probably the most
eye-catching is a small photo of DFD giving infant Mathias a bottle. Interestingly, there are no childhood photos of DFD's youngest son, Manuel, and no adult photo of his oldest son, Mathias. There are young adult photos of Martin and Manuel (one apiece). There are a couple photos of DFD's second wife, Ruth Leuwerik, and one of his third wife, Kristina Pugell.

There are a few new (to me) opera photos, including one of a very young DFD in costume for the premiere of Honneger's "Ein Totentanz" (1949). There is also a hilarious picture from Zillig's "Troilus und Cressida" that illustrates DFD's remark in his memoirs that wearing the short Greek tunic embarrased him. DFD barelegged looks like a stork, God help him. The concert and conducting photos are pretty much
all known quantities, as are the DFD paintings. There is just one photo of DFD giving a masterclass.

Don't worry about the text being in German. It is basically an abbreviated rehash of material in Hans A. Neunzig's 1995 biography of DFD. There is very little in it that is new. I don't exactly want to use the term "hack job," but it's close. So, you won't miss anything if you can't read the text, and if you have read Neunzig's biography, you pretty much know what the text says anyway.

Now for the weaknesses. There are two major flaws in the book, in my opinion. One is the rather haphazard way the material is arranged. At first you say to yourself, "Ah, it's chronological," but it isn't. You can leap years from one page to the next. Then you say, "Okay, it's thematic," but that turns out not to be true either. Pictures of every type are scattered through the book. Personally, I don't get it. I
would have put all the personal pictures in one place and arranged them chronologically, then done the same for the opera photos, etc. (Although the opera photos could have been arranged by composer, as it done to some extent in the book, but if so, then it should at least be consistent, which it isn't.)The paintings are a special section anyway, so they don't count. The other weakness, which is nearly
fatal, is the lack of an index. There is no index whatsoever, so if you want to find a photo, you have to leaf through the entire book. It's ridiculous.

Did I mention the term "hack job" a couple of paragraphs ago? You know, now that you mention it . . . .

Oh well, your mileage may vary of course, but at about $48 plus shipping, you may want to think about it carefully before you buy.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: Diskographie
Monika Wolf
BoD GmbH, Norderstedt (2005)
ISBN: 3833424702
Price: 29.90 Euros at (approx. $40.00)

Anyone who is familiar with Monika Wolf's previous Fischer-Dieskau discography (Schneider Verlag, 2000)knows the kind of detailed, accurate work she produces. This new discography, computer-published via Books on Demand, differs from the first one in several ways. First, the entries are arranged chronologically, instead of by composer. Second, it gives information about the recording producers and sound technicians, to the extent that it is available. Third, it contains entries that had not yet been released at the time of the original discography in 2000. And finally, each entry (except two) is accompanied by a color reproduction of the album cover. The book is more comprehensible to the casual reader than the earlier work, and thus gives a better impression of the sheer volume and scope of DFD's recorded legacy. It is simply a must-have for collectors of DFD's recordings, and it is also just plain interesting reading for DFD fans who are not obsessive collectors. The album covers are a great addition, and it's fun to see that the European covers are often different from the ones I know from the USA. If you collect DFD's recordings or would like to, you need both of Monika Wolf's discographies. If you're just starting, I recommend you begin with this one. You will not regret it.

Anne Bachschuster: Watercolor on paper (2000)
23 x 32 cm

Monday, March 07, 2005

Report from Home: School Days

When I was four, my parents sent me to kindergarten. I had wanted to go to school for as long as I could remember. The boy next door started school the year before I did, and I was terribly jealous. He went to Saint Mary’s school, to morning kindergarten, and came home at around noon. We played together in the afternoon, and he would tell me what he had done in school that day. It all sounded so wonderful, and I was embarrassed to admit that I didn’t go to school yet. What had I done in school that day, he asked me. So I lied. I told him that I went to the public school kindergarten and described my morning, which was remarkably like his, but he never seemed to notice that. I soon found out that living a lie was a tedious business. When Danny Knight left for school in the morning, I would sit down in a corner of the living room and pretend to be at school myself. I drew pictures, sang songs, looked at books, and tried to reproduce the other activities Danny had described. No matter how often my mother tried to send me out into the yard to play, I wouldn’t let myself be seen outside until after the noon whistle blew. Fortunately, I didn’t have to keep this up for long. Danny’s mother told him I was too young to go to school, and so the pretense was over.

Then, however, it really was time for me to go to school. I went to kindergarten in an old wooden building on South Fourth Street in Fulton. The residents of the city called it the chicken coop. I was anxious to go to school and had great expectations. Kindergarten, however, was a terrible disappointment. The teacher was large and forbidding and had a very powerful voice. Her name was Miss Freeman. Her first name was Gertrude, but the other kindergarten teacher, a Mrs. Hamer, called her “Gert” when they talked together. In my mind, I called her Gert. It fit her so well; it rhymed with dirt. It was abrupt and ugly and expressed everything I felt about her.

I think Miss Freeman’s mission in life was to set limits and make me follow the rules. I didn’t mind doing what she wanted—at least most of the time I didn’t mind—but I did have a habit of asking questions that didn’t please her at all. And I wanted to do all the wrong things. I wanted to get right into the sand pit and play with the dump trucks the way Danny and I did at home. She didn’t approve of that. I would get too dirty. I should play with the dolls and take turns wheeling the baby carriage. I never gave in without an argument, but Miss Freeman got her revenge. When it was time to play with the rhythm band, I never got to play the triangle or the tambourine. She always gave me the wooden blocks. I hated her, and the feeling was mutual. At report card time, my parents read that I was stubborn and would not follow directions. They didn’t seem too worried about that. Or too surprised either, for that matter.

But the worst thing about kindergarten, worse than any of my struggles with Miss Freeman, was that I missed every school party during the whole year. I never imagined there were as many kinds of chicken pox and measles as I suffered from during my first year of school. While everyone wore costumes and ate cookies and drank punch, I stayed home and tried not to scratch my sores. My older sister said that if I scratched them I would be scarred for life, so I only scratched them a little bit, when no one was looking.

I never had good luck in school. That continued from my first day in kindergarten to the day I got my diploma from high school. Teachers didn’t like me, for some reason. Of course, it might have been because I had a big mouth, but I prefer to regard it as prejudice. God knows, I gave enough teachers heart attacks in my time, like the day Mrs. Colitre, an elderly high school English teacher, confiscated my notebook during a study hall and discovered my first attempt to write a pornographic novel for public consumption (meaning my neighbors in study hall). It wasn’t all that great, but it made her blue hair stand on end, and I got a free trip to the principal’s office out of it. He laughed at my porno novel, which hurt a lot more than being caught in the act by Mrs. Colitre.

But once, only once, I felt that I came off best in an encounter with a teacher. I was in the fifth grade, and I came to gym class one day to find that the class was learning to play soccer. I had missed the class before, when the fundamentals had been explained, so I was a little at sea. As fate would have it, the gym teacher, a Mrs. Tully, who wore stockings with socks and sneakers, picked on me for a review of what had been learned the class before. “Here,” she said, the black and white ball on the gym floor between us, “Show the class how to tackle me.” Tackle her? I hesitated. I really didn’t know what she wanted, but who wants to remind the teacher that she was absent for the previous class? So I just stood there. “Come on, “ she said, growing impatient, “tackle me.” I couldn’t do it. I just stood there. Mrs. Tully’s patience was at an end. “Tackle me, stupid!” she hissed. Stupid? I gritted my teeth and measured her through narrowed eyes. And then I tackled her, just as I had learned playing football with the boys on the playground. I took her down at the knees so hard that she nearly bounced on the gym floor. Needless to say, I got a trip to the principal’s office that day, too. But it was worth it. That time it was worth it. Not too long ago I saw Mrs. Tully at the assisted living residence where my father was living. She looked tiny and frail, and she didn’t recognize me. But I smiled inwardly when I remembered what happened when she insisted that I tackle her. Stupid, huh?

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Munch's Berlioz Requiem on SACD: Almost, but not quite

Charles Munch's RCA recording of the Berlioz Requiem is as commanding as you'd expect any recording of Munch conducting Berlioz to be. The Boston Symphony sounds great as usual, but the chorus is clearly singing English-inflected Latin. Good chorus, though.

This was never quite out of RCA's top drawer, sonically-speaking, though it has its moments. The SACD is quite obviously superior to the version on the now out-of-print "Munch Conducts Berlioz" 8-CD set. (The new 10-CD set apparently uses mostly the same transfers for duplicative material.) This is apparent at both ends of the frequency spectrum: for example, the light bass drum taps during the tenor solo sound deeper and more audible on the SACD, whereas on the CD you barely notice they're even being played. On the top end, the new disc is more open and far less edgy, especially when the chorus sings loudly, and more of the capacious Symphony Hall sound is captured.

One audio cavil: Leopold Simoneau's solo sounds undermixed on the SACD, whereas it's well balanced and clear as day on the CD. It looks as if (as with the Gershwin disc) Sound Mirror Studios, who did the remastering, lowered the center channel of the three-channel master. This gives the sound more stereo separation--in the CD, many of the woodwind passages are quite prominent as part of the center "ghost image" (making the section sound almost as if it had been recorded in mono) whereas on the SACD the spread is wider. I prefer the latter mix, except where it causes the imbalance in the tenor solo.

RCA was already starting to use more mikes by 1959, when this recording was made, and for this reason the imaging is a bit vague vis-a-vis the very early two-mike stereo recordings such as Reiner's Heldenleben or Fiedler's Gaite Parisienne. There, everything is in its proper place on the stage, and in spite of the inevitable "hole in the middle," the precise location of the instruments is easy to discern. Perhaps the results would've been better if the recording had been made in 1953 or '54.*

At any rate, the performance is at least competitive with the other stereo versions I've heard (including the Telarc conducted by Robert Shaw--talk about a bass drum!), and the sound is very obviously improved.


* The brief excerpt that's survived of the lost stereo version of Munch's Damnation of Faust (recorded in 1954) is sonically sensational--far superior, even on red book CD, to this SACD of the Requiem. C'est la vie.