Sunday, November 8, 2009

"Autumn Journey" - Looking Back at Fischer-Dieskau

 "Autumn Journey" (a video biography of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) by Bruno Monsaingeon (1995), accompanied by a live Schubert Lieder recital by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Hard to obtain, and available only on VHS or US import DVD (Region 1)

A strong case could be made for regarding Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the greatest singer of the twentieth century. Almost as strong a case could be made for regarding Bruno Monsaingeon's reverent but probing documentary on the singer as the most fascinating film ever made about the inner life of a major recording artiste.

That is not to say that Fischer-Dieskau consciously sets out to reveal himself. On the contrary, as a consummate musical actor and an intensely private individual, he maintains a professional distance throughout. The honesty with which the film looks at the externalities of his career, from his youthful flirtation with Nazism to his post-retirement career as voice coach and producer, is almost a trompe-l'oeil for the fact that this performance is not too far from being another stage role in the singer's vast repertoire.

And yet herein lies much of the appeal. If this was just another example of a famous performer laying his soul bare, it would be tedious. As it is, we are treated to a deliciously ambiguous relationship between the film-maker and his subject. For all Monsaingeon's evident (and justified) adulation, he never lets his integrity slip, and as a master craftsman himself he puts his whole art in the service of the viewer. In lieder itself, the accompanist's role is as important as that of the singer - and it is as though Monsaingeon has used this relationship as a model for his film.

Thus, although it is Fischer-Dieskau who does the talking, the camera and the subtle use of wonderful archive footage never cease to winkle out unspoken truths. We can see clearly when the subject is putting a spin on events or cunningly adding to the myth. In fairness to the great man, he does so with intelligence and tastefulness in keeping with his status as an eminent scholar and artist. But without the film-maker's probing eye we would miss out on half the story.

The second half of the package is in many ways more poignant than the first. Here we are treated to one of the singer's last lieder recitals before his self-imposed retirement from live performance in the early nineties. In a way it is sad that Fischer-Dieskau should be remembered this way, deprived of the power - the iron fist in a velvet glove - that belonged to him in his prime. And yet even here the film-maker's judgement is flawless, because Fischer-Dieskau was always more than just a voice. In fact others were perhaps his equal in beauty of tone (Hermann Prey, for example, or Gerard Souzay). What set Fischer-Dieskau apart was the depth with which he communicated meaning through vocal inflection, posture, gesture, facial expression and eye contact. Of course these skills do not fade with age - indeed they become more refined. Stripping away the vocal power and agility of a younger man throws these unique and defining gifts into the limelight.

Thus with an artistic intelligence worthy of Fischer-Dieskau himself, Monsaingeon both penetrates and simultaneously perpetuates the mythical status of one of the greatest artists of our time. You may find that you come away from the encounter without warming to the man, but you will take away a new understanding of the artist and even greater awe at his achievements. To anyone interested in serious music, or in the cultural history of the twentieth century, this video will be an indispensable asset for repeated viewing.

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