14 June 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Karajan artists: Fritz Wunderlich – a short life and a singular voice

“Fritz Wunderlich … was living proof of the degree of perfection that a singer is capable of achieving.”

Thomas Hampson

Millions of people, among them many singers like Luciano Pavarotti, consider him to be the greatest lyrical tenor of the 20th century if not the greatest singer ever.

In his short career Fritz Wunderlich performed and recorded a huge repertoire from Buxtehude to Berg and was especially admired for his Mozart, Schubert and Mahler interpretations and for his albums of popular songs. In October 1966, Wunderlich was due to give his debut at the Metropolitan Opera New York, but a few days before, on 17th September 1966, he fell down the stairs in a friend’s house and died the next day of a fractured skull in a hospital in Heidelberg.

“What he did – there was no one who came close to him. I don’t think he will ever be surpassed.”

Nicolai Gedda

Karajan and Wunderlich performed several times together, in Bruckner’s Te deum, Mozart’s Requiem and “Don Giovanni”, Strauss’ “Frau ohne Schatten”, Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” and Haydn’s “The Creation”. Karajan could not complete his studio recording of the Haydn in 1966 with Wunderlich as Uriel because of the singer’s early death. Werner Krenn stood in for him and recorded the missing parts. But the year before at the Salzburg Festival, Wunderlich sang the same part for a live recording together with Gundula Janowitz, Hermann Prey and Kim Borg.

It was at the rehearsal for a “Missa Solemnis” in Berlin in 1966. Karajan showed Fritz Wunderlich with his hands how he wanted him to employ a special kind of legato. Wunderlich: “… with my hands I can do it too…”

We’ve prepared playlists with Karajan and Wunderlich. Listen to them here.

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