Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the great lieder singer and perhaps the most prolific classical recording artist of all time, died last week at the age of 86 (be sure to click on the link to read the excellent obit by my friend Anne Midgette of the Washington Post). During my 25-year career in classical music (16 of them with Time Magazine as its classical-music critic), I somehow never met the great “Dieter,” but I do have this one personal story, about the only time I heard him live in concert, that I couldn’t make up even if I tried.
(Forgive me if I get some of the details wrong — it’s been a long time.)
It was October of 1975 and I was just off the plane at JFK Airport in New York from several weeks abroad, including my “home” country of Ireland, to find that the Boston Red Sox were in the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. My beloved Sox were down three games to two but, due to some rainouts in Boston, game six had been postponed for three days and, as luck would have it, was scheduled at Fenway for October 21, two days short of my 26th birthday.
My good friend, fellow Eastman School of Music alumnus, brilliant composer, and collegial Sox nut, the late Joe Packales, picked me up at the airport in the same battered VW Bug he’d had when we were in college, and announced that, as a birthday present, he’d gotten two tickets to the October 21 performance of Schubert’s Winterreise in Carnegie Hall, sung by Fischer-Dieskau and accompanied by the great Russian pianist, Sviatoslav Richter. Only one problem: the concert began in Manhattan at 8 p.m., directly conflicting with the game.
What to do? #more#In retrospect, it was an easy call — but not so easy when you’re two guys in your twenties, Sox fans, and Schubert maniacs. (Both Joe and I were/are pianists, and regularly accompanied singers.) On our way into town, we debated the issue fiercely: Which was worse — forgoing Schubert, or missing the game, or at least the start of it? What would our friends say? (The opinion of your friends is very important when you’re in your twenties.) Here we were, with the hottest ticket in town, for two great artists at the peak of their powers in what’s arguably the greatest of all song cycles — and we were discussing it? Indeed, we were.
Magically, the car found its way to a parking spot somewhere on Eighth Avenue in the mid-50s (this was in the middle of the French Connection era in Manhattan), easy walking distance from Carnegie Hall. We planned as we walked — depending on how long the recital lasted, we might be able to make the drive back to Yellowstone Boulevard. in Queens and catch some of it, whereas if we punted our balcony seats (the first and last time I ever sat in Nosebleed Hollow at Carnegie) our ESM friends would never let us hear the end of it.
Plus we were hungry for pizza — I especially, who had just spent weeks “enjoying” British pub food and Irish breakfasts. We hit Carnegie running and took our seats. Fischer-Dieskau and Richter emerged from the wings and launched into the first song of the cycle, “Gute Nacht.”
Well, to say the performance was transcendent would be to sell it short. Dieter was in top form, but what made the performance even more special was that Richter was at the time one of the world’s great soloists, and soloists usually didn’t “lower” themselves to the lieder literature. Instead, he elevated it.
And . . . it was over by 9 p.m. No interval, just 24 songs and out. The poor narrator had no sooner finished thrilling to the organ-grinder in “Der Leiermann,” crazy as a bedbug, when we bolted for the exits. Back in the car, over the Queensboro Bridge and so to Forest Hills, phoned for pizza, turned on the game and . . .
Watched the whole thing from the third inning on. Saw Bernie Carbo’s homer, Dewey Evans’s great catch in right and, the pepperoni on the whole evening, Carlton Fisk’s 12th-inning walkoff homer over the Monster that allowed the Sawx to live (and, alas, die) another day.
Obviously, Fischer-Dieskau and Richter wanted to see game six as much as we did. Only time I had ever had my cake and ate it too, even if it was a pizza with Schubert on top.