When Fritz Wunderlich died in a fall on a hunting vacation, just nine days before his 36th birthday in September 1966, he was at the zenith of his career as a Mozart singer. The role of Tamino, which he had recorded the year before in Berlin under the baton of Karl Böhm, framed his all-too brief career in major roles. It was in 1956, as a young member of the Stuttgart Opera, that he replaced an indisposed colleague, Josef Traxel, and gave notice of a peerless Mozartian, with an easy, limpid, virile timbre, an innate feeling for style and immaculate diction in his native language. Tamino was the last role he sang on stage, ten years later, again with the Stuttgart ensemble, at the Edinburgh Festival barely a month before his fatal accident. In a career that lasted barely more than a decade, he gave exemplary performances of the lyric Mozart tenor roles: Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Ferrando in Così fan tutte and Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni. He was a workaholic and his operatic repertoire ranged from the baroque and early classical operas of Monteverdi, Handel and Gluck, to 20th-century classics such as Pfitzner’s Palestrina and JanáΩek’s The Excursions of Mr BrouΩek and contemporary works (he created parts in operas by Carl Orff and Werner Egk). His concert and Lieder repertoire were no less extensive and he left unsurpassed recordings of the tenor solos in Haydn’s Creation and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis under Karajan and, above all, the tenor songs in Klemperer’s recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, in which Wunderlich’s sappy, youthful timbre are allied to eloquent diction and freedom at the top of the voice. In the recording studio he was a populist, recording his favourite operetta arias and songs such as ‘Granada’ which endeared him to those that never set foot in an opera house.
In his own words: ‘To earn my living, I played jazz music on the side. At night I blew the trumpet, played the accordion, sang popular songs; in the morning, after a few hours of sleep, I studied Monteverdi and Lully at college.’
Best recording: Das Lied von der Erde, with Christa Ludwig, New Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer EMI Great Recordings of the Century 356 6944