How does one sing Bach?
Probably apocryphal, but nonetheless interesting: at the height of his career, German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was asked by a young singer, “What must I do to learn to sing like you?” To which the baritone replied, “Sing Bach.” We revere Fischer-Dieskau for his magisterial performances of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Wolf; but he sang a lot of Bach, as well, and has left us many recordings of his artistry. His Bach impresses mightily, even with the changes in performance practice since the height of his career. How so?
Voice: Fischer-Dieskau's’s voice is clear, focused, vibrant and slender, with a flexible, easily controlled vibrato. It is not large, but he covers a broad pitch range, with adequate control of volume at both the top and the bottom. His mesa di voce (ability to pass through the entire spectrum of volume and color on any pitch, without breaks or hitches) allows him to make the most of what he has, in terms of expressiveness. His coloratura, as well, is flexible and clear, and capable of moving along evenly at lightning speeds.
Ear: Fischer-Dieskau has very good intonation— no matter the difficulty of written intervals or the speed at which they must be executed, his basic pitches are very clear. He is aware of slight variations relative to tuning systems, adjusts to accompanying instruments, and, even up to the end of his career, was wonderfully reliable.
Brain: High intelligence is not always a characteristic of singers, but Fischer-Dieskau is far smarter than your average bear. One can hear in his singing that he understands musical structure, large- and small-scale; that he knows how to build intensity through tempo, vocal color, articulation, and dynamic change; and he clearly has a long-range, architectonic vision, not only of individual phrases, but of movements and of multiple-movement works. As well, he understands and pronounces languages accurately and with a poet’s sensibility, and his poetic sense is matched by a corresponding sense of vocal line and color.
Fischer-Dieskau is on my mind because one of my ensembles is working on Winterreise, and we use his recording with Gerald Moore as a reference. I finding myself telling the singers, when they get into trouble, “Just do it like Fischer-Dieskau does it. Of course it is difficult and challenging, but it can be done; listen to how he does it.” And last week I found myself saying the same thing in Chorale rehearsal.
Those who are not so crazy about Fischer-Dieskau complain that the voice, though well used, just doesn’t amount to much. They also find his approach rather cool and cerebral, too carefully planned rather than passionate and compelling. They would prefer more spontaneity, more risk, and more flamboyance. One might say they want a different balance between singer and composer-- they like a singer for whom the music is a vehicle, rather than a singer who commits himself to serving the composer’s larger musical and intellectual vision. One never fails to sense Fischer-Dieskau's complete commitment to the materials--music and poetry-- on the page. If those materials are intrinsically demanding and transcendent, one can be sure that Fischer-Dieskau is doing his best to bring them alive for the listener
I think there is never any doubt that Bach himself is at the center of any performance of his music-- and his music is very difficult to perform. One admires performers of Bach for their ability to get close to Bach, rather than for their personal traits and idiosyncrasies. Bach requires the skills and characteristics Fischer-Dieskau exemplifies—and he requires that those skills and characteristics be completed devoted to accomplishing the difficult tasks he proposes. One frequently hears Bach’s vocal music referred to as “instrumental” in nature, but I would disagree with this; I find it, rather, just to be terribly demanding, and difficult to pull off convincingly. Bach sets a bar which singers despair of reaching. One really must set a Fisher-Dieskau-like standard for oneself—which brings us back to F-D’s original statement: “Sing Bach.” If one can learn to do an adequate job of it, one is ready for nearly anything.