Sunday, January 23, 2011
The Great Fritz Wunderlich
"Fritz"(Friedrich) Wunderlich was born in Kusel, in 1930, into a musical family. His mother was a violinist and his father a choirmaster. Wunderlich's youth was not at all a happy one, owing to the terrible times in Germany, which was suffering extreme economic depression and the rise of the Nazis. His father, wounded in battle during World War I, and beset by many problems, took his own life when Fritz was a small child. Fritz worked in a bakery as a boy and, as the years passed, began to be noticed by others for his obvious musicality. He took music lessons and finally obtained a music scholarship that made it possible for him to study at the Freiburg Musical Academy. It was there that his voice attracted serious attention, and he was soon spotted as a very promising young tenor.
He first attracted attention for his singing of Mozart, but soon expanded his repertoire to include popular Italian operas, which he sang in German, as that was the tradition in Germany.
Wunderlich's career, because he died very young, was largely limited to singing opera in Germany and making (thank God!) a very significant number of recordings. It is almost exclusively through these recordings that Wunderlich is known and remembered today outside Germany. His recordings include famous operatic arias (usually in German), lieder, at which he excelled (he was very widely praised for his recording of Schumann's Dichterliebe, for example), religious music, and popular operetta pieces.
Wunderlich's voice was flawlessly produced, and very beautiful; it was, however, his extraordinary musicality and sense of style that won him such fame. The voice, spectacular as it was, would not have brought him the great reputation he enjoyed among musicians had he not been so brilliant a musician. By age 35, his future, both as a man and as a musician, seemed assured. He had married in 1956 and had three children. His reputation had begun to spread outside Germany, and he was starting to make foreign appearances (France, England, Argentina, Italy) and had been signed to appear at the Metropolitan Opera. Then, just short of his 36th birthday, he suffered an accident—falling down a flight of stairs at a friend's home—and died from the injuries he received. It was unquestionably one of the greatest musical tragedies of the twentieth century.
First, here is the aptly-named Wunderlich in one of opera's best known pieces, the lovely aria from Von Flotow's Martha, "Ach! so fromm," known to most by its foreign Italian title "M'appari."
This is musical and vocal perfection. Where to start! First, the very beautiful quality of the voice. We are in the non-Italian world of opera now—this is a much more open and "white" sound than the heavily covered and dark sounds so characteristic of Italian singing. This is not to say one is better than the other, only to say that the tonal qualities of open vs. covered singing are distinct. I believe the more open phonation of the German singers results in more distinctly individualistic sounds. The darker sounds of most (not all) Italian singers can sometimes lead to one voice not sounding all that different from another. In German, however, I believe it is immediately apparent to a music lover that Tauber's voice is distinct from Slezak's and both are distinct from Wunderlich's. The quality of each voice tends to be individual as opposed to universal "tenor." In English, we notice this more in musical comedy. Did Ethel Merman ever sound like anyone else?) Apart from the sound, which is lovely, there is the range. Wunderlich was solid all the way to his spectacular high C, and this is very rare for German tenors. Both the language and the training in Germany have historically tended toward high voices that are much heaver in the lower and middle registers than their Italian counterparts. This, in turn, can result in a short top. Tauber is a good example. He almost never sang above a Bb, (and there is nothing wrong with that), but it tends to narrow the singable repertoire. The big opera arias can only be transposed so far.
Here is a perfect example of what I mean. Wunderlich's recording of "Che Gelida Manina" is as vocally perfect as it can be. Be sure to wait for the big high C. I know of no other German tenor, living or dead, who could match it. Here I must ask you to click on the link, for technical reasons. I have the only version of the aria up on youtube, and I don't want to embed my own video in my blog because it can jam my hit counter on Youtube. Here is the link:
How about that! This is so uncommon for a German tenor! I cannot imagine it done any better. Yes, we can all name Björling, and a host of Italians, but they are not German speaking singers. The range is extraordinary, and the most extraordinary thing of all is that the top is entirely in line with the other registers of the voice. It is a seamless ascent to the top, with no sacrifice in beauty of tone. Musically, it is perfect.
The near disappearance of Otto Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor from the operatic repertory has robbed modern music lovers of some very beautiful music. It contains, among other things, one of the loveliest tenor arias ever written, "Horch! Die Lerche singt im Hain!" ["Listen, the lark is singing in the Grove!"]
Again, I seem to have the only copy up on Youtube, so please click the link again:
I honestly believe that this is one of the most beautiful arias I have ever heard.
What it all comes down to at the end is that it is almost impossible to fault Wunderlich on any aspect of his singing. The voice is lovely to the point of being glorious, the range is very high, and tonally it is a solid column of sound from top to bottom. The musicality was immaculate, and was said to be so by virtually everyone at the time. It's just perfect singing. As his friend and colleague Dietrich Fischer-Deiskau said when Wunderlich died at 35 years of age, there is no way to calculate the irreparable loss suffered by the world of music. We are unlikely to see another tenor who was so nearly perfect for a very long time indeed!
at 11:31 AM