Thomas Quasthoff is one of the best baritones of his generation, though he had no shortage of obstacles to overcome to become an international classical singer. Today he is a widely respected teacher and panellist on singing competitions around the world and, in his new series on BBC Four – Becoming a Lied Singer: Thomas Quasthoff and the Art of German Song, he presents a guide to one of the great loves of his life – German Lied.
In 2002, Quasthoff spoke to us about the music which had the biggest impact on his life in our regular Music that changed me column…
The first piece I remember is Carl Loewe’s Tom der Reimer sung by Josef Greindl. My father particularly liked to play it on Sundays, when we were allowed to sleep longer – it was his way to wake us up! Then, when I was about ten, my brother gave me a record of Oscar Peterson – History of an Artist. It was my first jazz experience, and I loved it. I grew up with many completely different styles of music. My brother brought me into contact with jazz and rock music, like Jethro Tull, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Deep Purple. I started singing in the school choir and the church choir very early. So oratorios and Bach cantatas were part of my life.
The first classical recording that really affected me was Bach’s St Matthew Passion. I had a beautiful recording from Karl Münchinger, who for many years was the conductor of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra. One of the aria basses was Tom Krause. He was one of my favourite bass singers – a wonderful, smooth, deep voice.
My parents wanted to encourage me to have a hobby. They realised that I sang well, so when I was 13, my father took me to sing for the man who was at the time in charge of the North German Radio’s chamber music department – Sebastian Peschko, who was also a famous accompanist. He knew that I was disabled, and thought my parents wanted to make me a star. So he said he only had 15 minutes. The 15 minutes turned into two hours, and afterwards he put me in touch with my teacher, Charlotte Lehmann. I was 14 when I began studying with her. I started with Bach, and then Lieder.
Schubert’s Winterreise is my favourite song cycle. I started singing it very early – I was 20 when I gave my first performance. That was good, because this cycle really has to grow with you. Anybody who has ever been in love and lost that love can follow this story; it’s the easiest way to be isolated or to isolate yourself.
I went to boarding school for people with disabilities, and there was no possibility of attending opera performances. But that changed. First I became interested in symphonic music, and listened to all the Brahms and the Beethoven symphonies, with Klemperer, Bruno Walter, Solti – all these great heroes. Then I started to listen to opera. It began very easily, with Mozart operas, and then Rossini, then Puccini. Gradually I got to know all the major Italian and German repertoire, except for Wagner. It’s only in the past six or seven years that I’ve really begun to get to know Wagner’s operas better.
I love nearly all of Mahler’s music. The big compositions for me are the orchestral songs. The Kindertotenliederbring up deep emotions that overwhelm me every time I perform them. To lose a child – it’s better not to even imagine that.
Simon Rattle has been a very important figure in my life. I watched all of his BBC television broadcasts about music. Apart from the Young People’s Concerts of Leonard Bernstein, they’re the most exciting thing I ever saw on television. We recently gave four performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. The way he worked with this orchestra was incredible – full of respect, but never old-fashioned, with so much emotion and intellect, with so much imagination.
Two years ago we were touring with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and he insisted I should do opera. I was reluctant, because I didn’t want the spotlight to be on my disability. But he said, ‘Why not?’ Something clicked in my head. If he trusts me to be able to do this, why should I be insecure? And so the decision was made that I will do Don Fernando in Fidelio with him in Salzburg next year.
In 2004 I will sing Amfortas in Parsifal at the Vienna State Opera, and I’m really looking forward to that. It’s an opera that’s especially close to my heart, almost an oratorio, about as intense as it’s possible for music to get. It’s an incredible honour to be able to sing this role for the first time in an opera house with such a huge tradition.