The Last Recital

Fritz Wunderlich (tenor)
Hubert Giesen (piano)
Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Richard Strauss

DG 9806790

reviewed by Neville Cohn 

The history of music is replete with instances where the circumstances surrounding the composition or performance of this or that work are so unusual that it is difficult, if not impossible, to listen to it divorced, as it were, from the events associated with it. A prime instance is that of pianist David Helfgott whose extraordinary life inspired the hit movie Shine. After attending numberless recitals by Helfgott, for instance, my reactions to his playing cannot avoid being coloured by an awareness of his severe illness and how he copes with it.

Kathleen Ferrier, that superb contralto, is another who springs to mind; her brave battle against terminal cancer – and her determination to keep giving recitals until almost the very end – endeared her to a huge audience around the world.

Now, DG has released a compact disc – The Last Recital – featuring tenor Fritz Wunderlich with pianist Hubert Giesen in a performance given for the Edinburgh Festival. In the ordinary course of events, this mono tape recording would probably have landed up on some or other music library shelf and simply forgotten, perhaps even wiped.

But events that took place shortly after that recital militated strongly against its abandonment or destruction.

Only a week before his 36th birthday and only days after his Edinburgh recital, Wunderlich fell down a flight of stone steps at a friend’s castle in Heidelberg and died from his injuries. It was a terrible loss for his family and friends – and it also robbed the world of his extraordinary artistry.

It should be said that the surviving tapes of Wunderlich’s last recital were second, possibly third, generation. In electronic terms, it was a compromised recording – and there was no technology at the time to produce an acceptable commercial recording from it. Certainly, it was not without blemish in performance terms. And had the great tenor not had that tragic accident, it is doubtful whether these tapes would ever have been seriously considered as a marketable commodity.

All this changed, of course, in the aftermath of Wunderlich’s death. But it is only recently that technology has developed to a point where rescuing these tapes became a realistic proposition. The sound engineers have done wonders. In a tour de force of electronic wizardry, they have transformed what would now be considered a basket case in sound-engineering terms, into an acceptable, if not flawless, listening experience.

Occasional blips notwithstanding, the artistry of Wunderlich and Giesen is, for much of the time, magical and magically preserved. Now and then, Giesen uses the damper pedal too generously with resultant blur. And, here and there, a vocal phrase is less than immaculate – but these detract only minimally from listening pleasure.

Their account of Schumann’s Dichterliebe is interpretation at an impressive level. Wunderlich breathes tenderness and ardour into these exquisite vignettes – and, for the most part, Giesen provides accompaniments fit for royalty to which Wunderlich responds with princely authority.

This represents the lion’s share of the recording. As well, there are lieder by Schubert and Beethoven – and Richard Strauss’ Ich trage meine Minne, mistakenly cut off by the engineers before its end.

Wunderlich’s last encore is deeply poignant. Heartbreakingly – and unknowingly at the time, of course, this last lied – Schubert’s An die Musik, that most tender of salutations to the magic of music – was to be Wunderlich’s swan song, his musical farewell to the world.

© November 2003

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