Tuesday 26 March 2013


Fritz Wunderlich (1930-1966)
In the late 1960s-early 70s when we were living on Eastern Parkway and Brooklyn Baby really was a baby, I used to listen to a classical disc jockey known simply as Watson. It was Watson who introduced me to the glories of the tragically short-lived tenor Fritz Wunderlich. If I remember correctly, Watson's program on WNCN ran from 10 or 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., so it wasn't unusual to hear him just before going to sleep, then again during breakfast the next morning before catching the subway to work. As "dessert," Watson would often end the program with a memorial tribute to Wunderlich, who'd been killed in 1966, age 36, in a fall from a stairway in a friend's hunting lodge. Nearly half a century after Watson's early-morning "desserts," Wunderlich continues to enrich my musical life.

The Wunderlich repertoire, ranging from the 17th century to the 20th, was not that of your typical superstar tenor. He sang Bach, Gluck, and Handel, Schubert and Schumann lieder, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Alban Berg. Above all, he was the greatest Mozart tenor I've ever heard.

International celebrity is not usually the reward of the Mozart tenor, even a great one. In an aria such as Tamino's Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön from The Magic Flute, you can't hide behind emotive vocal gimmicks, or dazzle with elaborate ornamentation, or bring down the house with a succession of high C's. The unadorned melodic line fully exposes the singer's control, lyrical technique, and purity of tone.

When sung at its indicated tempo, andante sostenuto, Don Ottavio's "simple" aria Dalla sua pace from Mozart's Don Giovanni is a fiendishly difficult challenge -- and a thankless one, as its emotional climax requires the tenor to nail extraordinarily low notes (from 3:45 on). (Pavarotti rarely ventured into Mozart. When he recorded this aria, the tempo was a bit fast, ignoring the sostenuto part, thus slighting the sheer nobility of the melody.)

Wunderlich was also the definitive interpreter of lighter, more popular European fare, including operetta favorites by Lehár and Kálmán. Here, mit schmaltz, is a beautiful example: Leo Irwin's Ich küsse Ihre Hand, Madame.

Leo Fall's O Rose von Stambul.

Now if you're wearing socks, grip them tightly lest they be knocked off by the Wunderlich version of Agustin Lara's Granada.