Close your eyes and imagine a music that emerged as if out of nowhere prior to the written or spoken word, a music that predates confusion-bearing babble that prompts more questions than answers but instead provides a teeming stream of musical invention that sings more than it could ever say, where rhythm is invariably paramount and texture a vital attribute. The music of Meredith Monk is a unique phenomenon in the post-War world, a sort of back-to-basics that while occasionally taking on board the influences of Bartók, Stravinsky and Steve Reich forges its own path and invites us in, as if laying down a blanket in a darkened back room where we can rest, listen, contemplate and soak up a whole host of ideas that are as unique as they are absorbing, ‘works that reveal a kind of underground civilization, one that sings, dances, and meditates on timeless forces,’ to quote Alex Ross of the New York Times. Such is the potent spiritual environment provided by Meredith Monk: the Recordings, ECM New Series 2750, 13 cds, c£91.00, recordings made between 1981 and 2015.
A few examples might give you some idea of what to expect. Monk herself describes Book of Days (disc IV) as ‘a film for the ears’ and indeed the third track ‘Dawn’ is a vivid tone picture for voices with a sombre instrumental underlay. The keyboard parts here are taken either by Monk herself or Nurit Tilles (well known for her work with Steve Reich’s Ensemble) whereas Wayne Hankin sings or plays instruments such bass recorder and hurdy gurdy. The solemn drone of ‘Fields/Clouds’ sounds as if taped during the dawn of time while ‘Madwoman’s Vision’ incorporates Monk’s signature monkey-like exclamations (which leap out at us at various points throughout the set). By contrast the folk-like finale is a ‘Cave Song’. In ‘Facing North’ (Disc V) on the other hand the fourth and eighth tracks (‘Keeping Warm’ and ‘Hocket’) wear a definite Reichian brogue (think of Reich’s ‘Violin Phase’, also out on ECM).
For the opera ‘Atlas’ Monk also wrote the libretto and choreographed the dances. It is scored for 18 voices and a small chamber orchestra which includes a shawm and a glass harmonica. The story is based very loosely on the life and writings of the explorer, spiritualist, Buddhist, anarchist, opera singer and writer Alexandra David-Néel (1868-1969), who is best known for her visit to Lhasa, Tibet, when it was forbidden to foreigners (for more on this fascinating historical character access https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexandra_David-Néel). Perhaps the best place to start here is Part One, ‘Future Quest’ (VI, Disc 1, track 4). ‘Piano Songs’ (Disc IX), is a hypnotic journey that features pianists Ursula Oppens and Bruce Brubaker and sometimes recalls the folkish magic of Bartók’s 153-piece teaching collection Mikrokosmos, a work that Monk loves (try ‘Urban March’ on track 4). And there’s the last CD (XII), ‘On behalf of nature’, it’s closing track ‘Spider Web anthem’, so lovely, which opens to a tightly-knit duet for women’s voices.
Above all ‘Meredith Monk: the Recordings’ is extremely listenable, its contents both the product of a singular and strong personality and representative of the times in which it was written. Although the overriding voice throughout this marvellous set is, in the broadest sense, Monk’s own, things may have turned out quite differently had the producer been anyone other than ECM’s founding audio magician Manfred Eicher, whose aim is always to allow an artist/composer total authenticity rather than tightening the thumbscrews of his own musical preferences. ‘Be who you are, let nothing block your path’ seems to be Eicher’s credo, unlike some producers and editors (recording or radio) who have a foregone agenda that has to be followed, and no matter what.
I’ll never forget the time I visited Eicher’s Munich offices some thirty years ago, arriving late morning and tired from a last-minute flight, ready for a coffee which was brought to me in Eicher’s office. There was a bookcase nearby which I casually glanced at expecting to see the usual row of reference books, directories and management manuals. To my utter delight instead there were volumes of Shakespeare, Goethe, Rilke, Heine, Hölderlin and so forth, an extended vade mecum for the intellectual guidance and nourishment of a man who in my view is the most imaginative and innovative living recording producer of modern music. This Monk collection is typical of his work at its best and comes handsomely packaged in a sturdy white box with a richly illustrated 304-page CD-size book. It’s a limited edition so don’t let it vanish from view before you’ve acquired a copy.
Another self-contained world, or galaxy I should perhaps say, emerges via Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: Complete Lieder Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon 00289 486 2073, 107cds, c£230. Leonard Bernstein once called Fischer-Dieskau “the most important singer of the 20th century” and Fischer-Dieskau returned the compliment (as related to me at least) by naming Bernstein Wilhelm Furtwängler’s natural successor. Both were after all conductor-composers who thought of themselves primarily as composer-conductors (more justified with Bernstein than with Furtwängler, admittedly). As for Fischer-Dieskau his principle claim to fame was being the first solo singer to attempt single-handedly to survey, via recordings, the entire (mostly though not uniquely German) male-voice art song spectrum which in the context of this neatly presented DG collection means Beethoven, Berg, Brahms, Britten, Debussy, Dvorák, Ives, Liszt, Loewe, Mahler, Nietszche, Reger, Pfitzner, Ravel, Schoeck, von Einem, Schoenberg, Schubert, Schumann, Shostakovich, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Webern, Wolf, Zemlinsky and others. The only previous venture that anticipated Fischer-Dieskau’s mammoth undertaking was pianist Michael Raucheisen’s complete catalogue of German language songs on record, launched in 1933 and for which Raucheisen became head of the department of Song and Chamber-music at the Berlin Radio for the organization of the studios there. But Raucheisen’s ‘catalogue’ involved numerous singers (all accompanied by Raucheisen himself, and fitfully available on CD) whereas Fischer-Dieskau, whose coverage of repertoire ranged far beyond Raucheisen’s, went it alone, excepting for pieces where multiple vocal ensembles are involved.
It’s all too easy with an artist as ubiquitous as Fischer-Dieskau has been for the last seventy years or so to underrate the sheer quality of his achievement. As the eminent American baritone Thomas Hampson wrote in Gramophone magazine in May 2012 ‘Whenever we bask in the beauty of his tone, revere the probing, questioning power of his intellect, or simply wonder at the astonishing physical abilities throughout all that he has achieved in his long recording career, we must also pause and say THANK YOU to this great artist, whose legacy, like a great and bright star lighting the way for those who follow in his passion for singing, is exemplary in every way.’
But what of the recordings themselves, which are in the main shared between Deutsche Grammophon and Warner Classics (or EMI, as was)? And the repertory duplication? In this context alone we have, for example, four recordings of Schubert’s Winterreise (with Jörg Demus, Gerald Moore, Daniel Barenboim and Alfred Brendel), as well as multiple versions of Die schöne Müllerin, Schwanengesang, Schumann’s Dichterliebe, Brahms’s Four Serious Songs and various other works. And the differences between performances are often significant. Take one of my own favourite Schubert Songs, Vor meiner Wieger (In front of my cradle, a song about the cradle, mother and death), twice represented, first in 1966 with Demus at the piano (Disc 58) then with Gerald Moore in 1969 (Disc 48). Just three years apart, but listen to the earlier performance, to the opening line of the last stanza ‘O Mutter, lieb Mutter, bleib lange noch hier, …’ (Oh mother! Dear mother, remain here…) and compare how Fischer-Dieskau sings the mother reference in both, beautifully but at a relative distance in ’69 whereas on the ‘66 recording there’s a sense of infinite sadness. The entire performance in fact is touched by a degree of eloquence that is rare on any lieder recording; even the tenor Karl Erb’s classic pre-War version doesn’t quite match up. Then there’s Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, twice represented from Vienna, first from the Musikverein in 1964, a rather crumbly mono broadcast recording with tenor Fritz Wunderlich on fighting form (such heroic singing) and the Wiener Simphoniker under Josef Krips, one of the conductor’s most urgent recorded interpretations. Then there’s Leonard Bernstein’s well known 1966 stereo Decca recording taped at the Sofiensaal with a more mellifluous Philharmoniker, a spectacular John Culshaw production where the tenor James King, good as he is, is no match for Wunderlich and Fischer-Dieskau’s more refined interpretation hasn’t the sweep or gemütlich connection that it had under Krips. It’s a subtle but cumulatively significant difference which makes the Krips version well worth owning.
And so it goes on. Hugo Wolf, always a Fischer-Dieskau speciality, is handsomely represented. Der Feuereiter, the terror-driven Fire-rider, can be heard live with Sviatoslav Richter at the piano in October 1973 and in the studio with Barenboim during June of the same year. The mill behind the hill is on fire and the distant bell peals on and on; the Devil is grinning from the rafters amid the flames of hell. As to the two performances, ‘live’ with Richter Fischer-Dieskau offers frantic reportage. You imagine his smoky hair tousled with soot, his eyes ablaze, his voice filled with panic, then turn to the Barenboim version and the story becomes a memory, still told with dramatic inflections, but more a sung performance than the ‘shouty’ fire-stricken Richter option. Barenboim too is on this occasion the more orderly pianist.
I have to tell you at this point that for all its rich ingredients – riches beyond compare I’d say – the set lacks one important listening aid, texts or translations. Even the song titles are not translated, a pity because they would at least offer a hint of a song’s meaning. Then again, most of the songs are in fact available online and there’s the Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau Book of Lieder (Limelight Editions, New York, 1984) which you can buy from Amazon and elsewhere reasonably inexpensively. But even that isn’t wholly representative of what is included here. For example, my beloved Vor meine Wiege isn’t included (though you can beam it up online at https://www.schubertsong.uk/text/vor-meiner-wiege/). There’s so much I haven’t mentioned not least such larger-scale pieces as Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony (where you hear Fischer-Dieskau with his wife Julia Varady), Frank Martin’s Sechs Monologe aus Hugo von Hofmannsthals ‘Jedermann’, Schoeck’s Lebendig begraben, monologues (including Strauss’s Enoch Arden with Demus) and significant recorded interview material in English and German. There’s a 240-page richly illustrated book that features essential discographical information while the discs themselves are packed into four sturdy containers.
So the ultimate question has to be, is this huge collection worth the substantial asking price? Well for a start 107cds at just over £200 or thereabouts, even £300 (ie approximately £3 a disc) isn’t expensive. Much of the music is top-flight and Fischer-Dieskau’s singing ranges from brushed velvet, often softened to a near-inaudible pianissimo, to a declamatory fortissimo. For Fischer-Dieskau each song, whether in German, French, English, Italian or Russian (he sings in all these languages) is a world in itself. Yes, he can occasionally ‘bark’ but even then, the one thing you’re always aware of is the text and its meaning for him which makes listening even without translations compelling. As a record of human experience, whether spiritual, amorous, dramatic, humorous, folkish, warming or fear-inducing, these songs and larger works invariably cast a spell and to have them interpreted by a single mind of such magnitude is a privilege that we can only ignore to our loss. So I’d call it a volume worthy to be placed beside Manfred Eicher’s collected volumes of Shakespeare, Goethe, Rilke, Heine, and Hölderlin.