25 Essential Beethoven Recordings: The Songs

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Beethoven is believed to have written 158 songs, yet they remain a comparatively neglected aspect of the work of the world’s most celebrated composer. To be sure, many scholars will argue that the songs are among the composer's weakest material – his most sentimental, saccharine and dare we say, conventional. But there are plenty of gems in the mix, and even some innovative works that played a key role in the development of German art song.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the towering art song interpreter who died in May at age 86, recorded Beethoven’s songs several times over the course of his career. Among the most significant was a 1966 version of An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved), Op. 98, which can be seen as the first real song cycle by a great composer in the sense that the six are closely interrelated.

The baritone ably captures the inward feelings of longing and consolation in this cycle, just as he delivers a heartfelt setting of the autobiographical song "An die Hoffnung" ("To Hope" - Op. 94) and a nuanced reading of three Goethe settings (Op. 83). The latter performances capture both the fundamental meaning and minutiae of Goethe's texts, as when the text reflects on how bleak the world appears when it is not refracted through eyes filled with "tears of unhappy love."

Below is the full audio recording of An die ferne Geliebte, contained on DG’s Complete Fischer-Dieskau Edition.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone
Jörg Demus, piano
Beethoven songs
Deutsche Grammophone
Available at Arkivmusic.com