I’ve written a little about the great German tenor before but have not devoted a full post to him. Wunderlich was born in1930 and died in 1966 following a fall down a stone staircase which fractured his skull. He was just shy of his both his 36th birthday and his debut at the Metropolitan Opera.

Wunderlich had a rich lyric tenor with brilliant high notes. He sang with great sensitivity and insight. He was at home in opera, operetta, lieder, baroque music, and in just about any conceivable style. Fortunately, despite his brief life, he left a legacy of numerous recordings. I’ve chosen a few to show both his virtuosity and versatility.

First, Von der Jugend (of Youth) which is the third of the six movements that comprise Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The words with an English translation are below.

3. “Von der Jugend” (“Of Youth”)

Mitten in dem kleinen Teiche
Steht ein Pavillon aus grünem
Und aus weißem Porzellan.

Wie der Rücken eines Tigers
Wölbt die Brücke sich aus Jade
Zu dem Pavillon hinüber.

In dem Häuschen sitzen Freunde,
Schön gekleidet, trinken, plaudern.
Manche schreiben Verse nieder.

Ihre seidnen Ärmel gleiten
Rückwärts, ihre seidnen Mützen
Hocken lustig tief im Nacken.

Auf des kleinen Teiches stiller
Wasserfläche zeigt sich alles
Wunderlich im Spiegelbilde.

Alles auf dem Kopfe stehend
In dem Pavillon aus grünem
Und aus weißem Porzellan;

Wie ein Halbmond steht die Brücke,
Umgekehrt der Bogen. Freunde,
Schön gekleidet, trinken, plaudern.

In the middle of the little pond
stands a pavilion of green
and white porcelain.

Like the back of a tiger
arches the jade bridge
over to the pavilion.

Friends sit in the little house
well dressed, drinking, chatting.
some writing verses.

Their silk sleeves glide
backwards, their silk caps
rest gaily at the napes of their necks.

On the small pond’s still
surface, everything shows
whimsical in mirror image.

Everything stands on its head
in the pavilion of green
and white porcelain.

Like a half-moon is the bridge
its arch upturned. Friends
well dressed, drinking, chatting.

Die Forelle (The Trout) is both one of Schubert’s most charming songs as well as the basis for his great quintet of them same name. Wunderlich’s easy singing captures the spirit of the song written when its composer was 20 years old. The lyrics are below.

In einem Bächlein helle, da schoß in froher Eil
Die launische Forelle vorüber wie ein Pfeil
Ich stand an dem Gestade und sah in süßer Ruh
Des muntern Fischleins Bade im klaren Bächlein zu
Des muntern Fischleins Bade im klaren Bächlein zu

Ein Fischer mit der Rute, wohl an dem Ufer stand
Und sah’s mit kaltem Blute, wie sich das Fischlein wand
Solang dem Wasser helle, so dacht ich, nicht gebricht
So fängt er die Forelle mit seiner Angel nicht
So fängt er die Forelle mit seiner Angel nicht

Doch endlich ward dem Diebe die Zeit zu lang
Er macht das Bächlein tückisch trübe und eh ich es gedacht
So zuckte seine Rute, das Fischlein aus Fischlein zappelt dran
Und ich mit regem Blute, sah die Betrogene an
Und ich mit regem Blute, sah die Betrogene an

In a limpid brook
the capricious trout
in joyous haste
darted by like an arrow.
I stood on the bank
in blissful peace, watching
the lively fish swim 
in the clear brook.

An angler with his rod 
stood on the bank
cold-bloodedly watching 
the fish’s contortions.
As long as the water 
is clear, I thought,
he won’t catch the trout 
with his rod.

But at length the thief
grew impatient. Cunningly
he made the brook cloudy, 
and in an instant
his rod quivered,
and the fish struggled on it.
And I, my blood boiling,
looked on at the cheated creature.

Richard Strauss’ song Morgen was written in1894. The composer orchestrated it three years later. It remains one of his most popular songs. Wunderlich’s rendition is vocal gold.

Und morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen
und auf dem Wege, den ich gehen werde,
wird uns, die Glücklichen sie wieder einen
inmitten dieser sonnenatmenden Erde…
und zu dem Strand, dem weiten, wogenblauen,
werden wir still und langsam niedersteigen,
stumm werden wir uns in die Augen schauen,
und auf uns sinkt des Glückes stummes Schweigen…

And tomorrow the sun will shine again
and on the way that I will go,
she will again unite us, the happy ones
amidst this sun-breathing earth,
and to the beach, wide, wave-blue
will we still and slowly descend
silently we will look in each other’s eyes
and upon us will sink the mute silence of happiness

From lieder to operetta Wunderlich is just as fluent, the nature of this latter music shows his extraordinary technique to fine advantage. Wien nur du allein was written by Rudolf Sieczyński in 1914. He also wrote the lyrics. The nostalgic tribute to the Austrian capital is the only remaining trace of his work. Franz Lehar’s Land of Smiles is likely on the Index of Forbidden Art because Richard Tauber the tenor for whom the operetta was written played a Chinese prince. Nevertheless, the aria Dein ist mein ganzes Herz is sung by every tenor who can get above the staff. Wunderlich’s version has everything – beauty of tone, expressiveness, ardor – the whole package.

The Mexican composer Augustin Lara’s song Granada is sung by everyone regardless of vocal type. Wunderlich sings it in German. Despite the lingual mismatch his performance is drenched in vocal beauty combined with the appropriate abandon that makes his performance almost unbeatable. On reflection, take out “almost.”

Leoncavallo’s song Mattinata was written in 1904 and was dedicated to Enrico Caruso who was the first singer to record it. It has been a popular recital piece ever since.

Of course, despite his versatility Wunderlich was best known as an opera singer. His voice was perfect for the lyric roles in German, French, and Italian opera. Had he lived his tenor might have expanded to include spinto roles. The excellence of his technique was so abundant that he would have overcome any vocal problems that heavier roles might have presented.

De’ miei bollenti spiriti from Verdi’s La Traviata was a perfect fit for Wunderlich’s voice.His combination of vocal beauty and brilliant phrasing is a virtual masterclass.

Richard Strauss didn’t particularly care for the tenor voice. The Italian tenor’s aria from Act 1 of Der Rosenkavalier is heavy on parody. Wunderlich sings the ersatz 18th century aria with simple distinction.

La donna e mobile is given a jaunty reading with the brilliant fioritura needed at the end capped by a ringing concluding high note.

E lucevan le stelle is sung with grace. The absence of the diminuendo on ‘disciogliea’ that is beyond the ken of most tenors is not noticeable here. Wunderlich’s direct and subtle rendition fully realizes the famous aria even though he sings it in German.

‘Viens, gentille dame’ from François-Adrien Boieldieu’s La dame blanche is a virtuoso aria.Wunderlich sings it in German as Komm’, o holde Dame. He makes the difficult piece sound easy.

Finally, Lensky’s aria from Eugene Onegin. Of course, it’s in German and of course it’s wonderfully sung.

Wunderlich was the youngest of the three great 20th century tenors who died before 40. The other two are Joseph Schmidt and Mario Lanza. Each was irreplaceable. Their loss even after so many years is still palpable and painful.