Eddie Pensier writes:
Don’t get me started on the subject of tenors. I have so many favorites it’s ridiculous. Some days it’s the peerless elegance and linguistic versatility of Nicolai Gedda. Some days it’s the ringing heroism and pure Italian squillo of Franco Corelli. The faultless technique of Pavarotti, the masculine almost baritonal luster of Jonas Kaufmann, the lyric and agile sweetness of Frank Lopardo, the straightforward brilliant tone of Jussi Björling, all appeal to me for different reasons.
But put a gun to my head, and I’ll tell you that my favorite tenor of all time is Fritz Wunderlich, hands down.
Few will argue that in terms of sheer beauty of tone, there’s nobody who even comes close to Wunderlich (except maybe Gedda, sometimes). The pinpoint intonation and vibrato speak to a solid and well-learned technique, but it’s the luscious melted-butter gorgeousness of the voice that makes you swoon when you hear it for the first time. Eventually, you’ll also notice Wunderlich’s perfect phrasing and breath control, and the utter sincerity of his delivery. If there’s one thing to quibble about, it’s that his diction in Italian and French was a bit, well, Teutonic. It’s just as well that during his lifetime, many of his recordings of non-German operas were sung in German (as was then the style). If you ever hear anyone dragging out the old canard about “German is such a harsh/difficult/ugly/etc. language for singing”, you can refute them with two words: Fritz Wunderlich.
It’s fortunate for us that Wunderlich was widely recorded, because he died at the tragically young age of 35 in an accidental fall (his Wikipedia page tells us “his hobbies included hunting, guns, and fast cars”). We can only speculate about the heights he might have reached had he lived.
In the comments to my review of The Magic Flute, I stated:
The Portrait Aria is deceptive: it’s not hard in a technical sense, but it is hard to sing well. Mozart unkindly forgot to include places for his tenor to breathe, so a performer with perfect phrasing is even more important here than it is elsewhere (which is pretty important).
There are two famous recordings of Wunderlich singing Tamino’s aria (here in sequence, in one handy clip), but my favorite is this clip of a recital encore from July of 1965, a few months before his death. The piano accompaniment makes it seem somehow more tender and intimate, and I think it’s sung even more beautifully than the better-known recordings….almost lieder-like.
Here he is singing “Wie eiskalt is dies Händchen”, which you may know as “Che gelida manina” from Puccini’s La bohème. He accomplishes the difficult feat of transmitting the aria’s essential Italian-ness, without actually singing in Italian. (Keep your ears open at 2:44…lyric perfection.)
Wunderlich actually does sing in Italian here: the popular Neapolitan song Funiculì, Funiculà. If you can get past the pretty bad pronunciation, you’ll hear one of the liveliest, punchiest and non-schmaltziest versions of this standard ever recorded.
Back to German, here’s a clip from Bach’s Matthäus-Passion: “Ich will be meine Jesu wachen”. Besides the lovely singing, Wunderlich’s killer phrasing really stands out… listen to the way he takes the lines in one breath (such as at 3:57) and ends them as strongly as he started.
Finally, song: Wunderlich was as celebrated for his lieder interpretations as for his opera. His recording of Schumann’s Dichterliebe is one of the greats, but I’ve chosen to include this compilation of four of my favorite Schubert songs: “Heidenröslein”, “Die Forelle” (1:45), “An Silvia” (3:57) and “Das Wandern” (6:57), with frequent accompanist Hubert Giessen. Enjoy the music, and the poetry (translations of all songs can be found here).
Bonus Christmas carol: Wunderlich and baritone Hermann Prey singing “Stille Nacht”, aka “Silent Night”.