Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Year of Webcor, Reed, and Fischer-Dieskau

It was 1956, just before or just after I completed my B.A. and I was living in the chocolate-brown apartment at 2308 Haste Street in Berkeley.  Claude was at sea with the Merchant Marine, I don't think that M. had yet moved in, and I still knew people whom I'd come to know in the apartment at the back of the second floor of 2411 Durant Avenue.  One of these was a graduate student in History named Reed Abel, whom I don't think I've written about before in this blog.  It's all right, I think, to mention him by name, because I can't find anyone at all academic or by now nearing age 80 anywhere on the Web.  I owe a lot to him, primarily as a friend (as lovers we didn't really get anywhere).  He told me things to read in history, he taught me to read German lyric poetry, which became a lifetime pleasure (though I never got around to taking the course, by all accounts delectable, for a single credit hour, devoted to reading not only Goethe but the likes of Ruckert, too).
At that time, too, set on the window seat alongside my single rollaway bed, I had a Webcor Fonograf, three speed, with a flip cartridge for the two diameters of stylus.  I had found, too, the first complete Monteverdi Orfeo on a dozen 12" Voce del Padrone 78rpm shellac records and the two-disk album of the Vivaldi-Bach Concerto for violins or (Bach) for four pianos—the very recording that was used in the film of Les Enfants Terribles.  And I picked up used 78rpm in every secondhand bookstore that I visited.  But it was also the decade not only of Remington records, LPs, very cheap, many of them pirated, seemingly from Austrian state radio and given fictive names of conductors and orchestras.  Not pirated, though issued in the USA under license from Ducretet-Thompsom (if I have that right), and costing only a dollar more, was the Westminster catalogue, where we first listened to Hermann Scherchen and much else of enduring value, and (full price) Concert Hall LPs which I shall always associate with Walter Goehr.  I am not a thorough discographer, so I won't trace all the re-issues later on.  Here it is a particular Westminster LP that is my point of departure.
It is one that I no longer have, but purely on a whim, because I wanted to hear what they were like, I had bought an LP of Beethoven Lieder sung by Alfred Poell, a nice Austrian baritone (I assume you all know how to Google him).  Poell was no longer young, but only middle-aged, and a native speaker of German, but he was no great Lieder singer.  Still, I loved the songs, and I loved the record, too, until my friend Reed visited with the second volume on Electrola, sent from Germany, recorded in 1955, of the thirty-year-old Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (beginning with the Gellert Lieder).  His accompanist was Hertha Klust.  She was not the greatest, and later Fischer-Dieskau did record with the greatest who were capable of accompanying Lieder, but she was very good indeed, much better than Poell's pianist (I've forgotten, too, who he was).
The sequel is predictable.  Yes, of course, I like operas.  But I live for Lieder and mélodies and even art songs by composers that otherwise I can live quite without.  I have 32 complete Winterreise, nearly as many Schöne Müllerin, the whole Hyperion Schubert, and much, much else, even down to mid-20th century composers like Hindemith, whose chamber music I value much more highly.
Not to bore readers who can do without Lieder, just imagine what all this has done for my basic German and for Sprachgefühl.  Imagine how much pleasure it has brought to reading even much more difficult German.
I owe it mostly to my friend Reed Abel.
And now I wonder whether he is still alive.  After all, I'm no spring chicken, either.  And Lucian Freud died the other day, then two days later Michael Cacoyannis (of Zorba fame, though I like the film called, in English, The Girl in Black).  And others, all a little older than me but younger than Queen Elizabeth II and Shirley Temple.  So far as I know the pianists Jörg Demus and Paul Badura-Skoda (two more known thanks to Westminster LPs) are still among us.
But almost every day I wonder, How is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau?  He is, of course, retired; he must be 86.  Perhaps he is so old that he supposes that no one remembers him.  Of course, I know no one who could tell him that there are those of us who owe half of their sensibility and understanding and pleasure in music to his art, and I don't expect an angel to whisper it in his ear, but there it is.  There were other singers and conductors and dancers I had youthful crushes on, but Fischer-Dieskau was not so much an idol as a great mentor.  Yes, there have been others, but I came to know the others' art much later; it was F-D, indeed, who brought me to listen to them.
And all credit to that laughable-looking little Webcor Fonograf; they sounded good, and my 1950s LPs  still are in playable, enjoyable condition (of course, I kept them clean, and I also have CDs of many of them).  Somewhere I found a YouTube of a couple of young guys who bought one for $4.50 at Goodwill, and found that it runs fine, correct speed, sounds "great" (well, anything is better than a bud in the ear from an iPod).