My brief encounter with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
The deputy editor recalls an unexpected interview with the late, great baritone
I’ve no idea when, or to whom, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau gave his final interview. Nor would I be gauche enough to try and find out. I do suspect, however, that the chat on the phone I had with him just a couple of months ago was one of the last. It was also, surely, one of the least expected and, if I’m honest, least deserved.
It was a very ordinary late-February morning in the office when my phone rang. I was in a meeting at the time, clustered round a colleague’s computer. The number began ‘0049’ - probably one of our German PR contacts. I’ll be back in a sec, I told my colleagues. ‘Hello, Mr Pound?’ said an elderly-sounding, and not-at-all-PR-like voice as I picked up the receiver. ‘This is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Can we speak now?’
Ah, right. Leading musicians who will ring you up in person are relatively few and far between. Bryn Terfel has done so in the past, conductor Harry Christophers too. I certainly wasn’t expecting it from arguably the greatest Lieder baritone of all time, and an 86-year-old German one at that. Frantically waving at people to stop talking with one hand, I scrabbled away in my bag for my phone microphone with the other.
Just to explain… The call didn’t come completely out of the blue. But it was at least three weeks earlier that, for a feature marking 50 years since the premiere of Britten’s War Requiem, I had been trying to get in touch with one or two of those who had performed on the occasion itself. Michael White, writing the feature, had tracked down soprano Heather Harper, but we’d all but given up on Fischer-Dieskau. All we had was a fairly forlorn-looking fax number. Fax? Fat chance of that still being current. Still, no harm in trying. I sent off my request, but with no real hope of receiving a reply.
So, when the great man did pick up the phone and get in touch, I was a bit taken aback. But not too much, thankfully, to conduct something resembling a coherent interview. Fischer-Dieskau still had clear memories of the occasion and spoke lucidly though, as Michael has pointed out elsewhere, his memories of events contrasted with those of others. The baritone remembered the occasion as a major high point of his career, while Britten himself famously regarded it as close on a disaster. Nor did the apparently dismal acoustic of Coventry Cathedral worry Fischer-Dieskau – ‘It was fine!’ he told me.
He did, however, recall with obvious dismay, and still some disbelief, how his appearance as a German had prevented the appearance of Soviet soprano Galina Vishnevskaya and also reckoned that it was a mistake of Britten not to conduct the whole work himself. Charmingly, at the end of our little chat, he apologised for his (in fact, perfect) English.
It doesn’t pay to get starstruck in this job, given that you’re required to interview people of extraordinarily high talents on an almost daily basis. I did, however, make an exception on this occasion. Spending the rest of the day in a buzz, I told everyone and anyone about it.
But really, did I deserve to interview such a legend? Not really. Not only was I not writing the article myself, I also have the most negligible knowledge of the Lieder singer’s art. Over my 15 years or so in the job, I have shamefully steered away from anything that involves a voice and the piano. There are many thousands who know Fischer-Dieskau’s voice far better than I, and would have killed to have the chance to talk to him.
Probably not fair, then, that I got the opportunity. My good fortune, I know. But now that I’ve had the privilege, the hard work must begin. A number of those many great Fischer-Dieskau recordings are currently making their way onto my iPod…