The Compact Collection

Rob Cowan On The Week's CD Releases
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The Independent Culture

To celebrate Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's 75th birthday is to commemorate the post-war rehabilitation of the German language. No performing artist did more to readjust our savaged sensibilities, after years of ranting had debased the words that Goethe, Heine and Schiller used, and that Schubert, Schumann and Hugo Wolf set to music.

The sheer bulk of Fischer-Dieskau's discography can easily faze even the most seasoned collector. Previous issues have chronicled sizeable chunks of lieder, oratorio and operatic repertory but DG's new "Fischer-Dieskau Edition" includes more than 300 first-ever CD releases, and reinstates a number of important recordings that have long languished in the vaults.

One in particular, a 1968 set of Schubert's song-cycle Die schöne Müllerin with Jörg Demus at the piano, receives its first airing in any form. Take down the recording that Fischer-Dieskau made with Gerald Moore three years later (it's already available on CD), and you'll note - quite aside from one or two key transpositions - huge differences in phrasing, timbre and articulation. The story might be the same, but the manner of its telling has changed utterly.

Promoters of our sound-bite culture might profit from listening to this set. The best German art songs could easily qualify for mass-consumption. They're concise, rhythmically alive (some of Schubert's songs really do dance) and tuneful. And then there's the narrative aspect. One particular Schubert recording stands out as exceptional. It's the song "Von meiner Wiege", in which the poet draws parallels between the cradle and the grave, remembering his mother "who would sing comfortingly of angels". Every note and phrase falls precisely in the right place: you could listen a hundred times and still not fathom how words and music settled in such perfect accord.

But that's just a single miracle. Many other recordings come close. There are subtly shaded songs by Othmar Schoeck, mellow lieder by Brahms, arias from Baroque and Romantic opera, whole programmes devoted to performer-composers (Adolf Busch, Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Kempff, etc) and a "bonus" disc of Beethoven and Haydn folksong settings. We hear performances in Italian (Liszt Petrarch Sonnets), French (Debussy and Ravel) and English (Beethoven and Haydn folksong settings).

It's a bulky, mid-price box that will probably be broken up in shops (each disc is individually cased and annotated) though I doubt you will find a more comprehensive cross-section of this great singer's art. Some of the songs will be unfamiliar but there is another celebratory release that extends our knowledge of the repertoire even further. EMI's 3-CD collection, entitled simply "Lieder", with composer-pianist Aribert Reimann, travels diverse musical paths, from Berlioz (one of the Nuits d'été) through Grieg, Cornelius, Nietzsche (yes, the philosopher), Anton Rubinstein, Milhaud, Schöenberg, Bartók and beyond.

It's a first-CD-release collection encompassing no less than 42 composers. Strauss and Mahler are represented by just a single song, and there's no Schubert, Schumann, Brahms or Wolf. But aficionados won't need any prompting, but if you're a relative novice, I predict many happy surprises.

Fischer-Dieskau Edition, DG 463 500-2 (20 discs plus bonus CD); Lieder, Fischer-Dieskau, Reimann EMI Classics CMS5 67349 2 (three discs)

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