The Giant, Life-Affirming Talent of Thomas Quasthoff

Justin Davidson

By Justin Davidson

on 03.20.12 in Spotlights

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Thomas Quasthoff

On a recording, Thomas Quasthoff sounds like a happy fluke of nature. As with all great singers, his awesome voice is the result of a peculiar arrangement of membrane, cartilage and cavities, linking his lungs and his cranium. His bass-baritone has an oaken heft, but his tone is light and graceful, and if you were asked to form a mental picture of the singer, it might be of a tall, lithe man. In person, he makes a completely different impression, which he describes with characteristic humor in his memoir, The Voice: “Here is a four-foot, three-inch concert singer without knee joints, arms, or upper thighs, with only four fingers on the right hand and three on the left. He has a receding hairline, a blond pig head, and a few too many pounds around his hips.”

Quasthoff’s story is one of extreme physical gifts and handicaps. Born in Hildesheim, Germany, in 1959 to a mother whose use of the drug thalidomide in pregnancy produced his disabilities, he spent a year and a half in an orthopedic rehab ward, much of it in traction, glassed off from his family to prevent infection. Excluded from ordinary schools, taunted by other children, sentenced to a horrific boarding school for the disabled, and rejected by the conservatory because he could not satisfy the requirement that he play an instrument, Quasthoff accumulated enough traumas to justify a lifetime of depression. Instead, he armed himself with a formidable wit and unquenchable good cheer. Though his repertoire consists largely of tragic songs, you can hear the undercurrent of optimism in his singing. Perhaps his musical genius comes from a close-up view of desperation and his refusal to be sucked under by it.

His disabilities have taken their toll on his career. Although he still sounds marvelous, he recently retired from the concert stage, saying that his health was no longer up to the demands of performing. He found opera exhausting and difficult, and only ever appeared once as Amfortas in Wagner’s Parsifal and another, equally memorable time, as Don Fernando in Beethoven’s Fidelio. His charismatic rendition of Leporello’s aria “Madamina, il catalogo è questo” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni makes you wish he had sung the role onstage. Of course in a career so rich, long and varied, it hardly makes sense to dwell on what he did not do — except to note that he may never have sung a shoddy note or uttered a lazy phrase.

He sings Mahler, in particular, with a combination of intelligence and terrifying sincerity. Kinterdotenlieder unites the consoling with the horrific, the familiar and the uncanny, and Quasthoff guides listeners through the fantastical landscape of Mahler’s orchestral songs with stark reportorial simplicity and deep wells of emotion.

Quasthoff sings like one who listens. Bach’s Cantata BWV 82, “Ich habe genug,” begins with an oboe in serene and melancholy dialogue with the gentle lapping of strings. Then the voice enters with the biblical words of the frail old Simeon (from Luke II, 22–32), who has postponed his death long enough to embrace the infant Jesus: “I have [seen] enough.” Quasthoff declaims that line with the lyrical simplicity of a great actor.

The more pared down the music, the more evident his talents. In Schumann’s Dichterliebe he achieves a sublime naiveté. In Schubert’s melodies, which seduce many singers into self-pitying sentiment or excessive drama, Quasthoff never honks or booms. Instead, he planes over a phrase the way a surfer rides a wave, with an instinctive feel for its contour. In the song “Ungeduld” from Die Schöne Müllerin, he delivers each repetition of “Dein ist mein Herz” (“Yours is my heart”) as a simple statement of fact. Love exists, and attention must be paid.

In recent years, he has gone public with his fondness for jazz standards and American popular song of a nostalgic hue. He sings these tunes stylishly, without stiffness or affectation (and in excellent English), but also without great insight. Maybe he wasn’t born to be a nightclub entertainer, but considering the circumstances of his birth and what he made of them, it’s reasonable to hope that working with a microphone and an electric trio might yet give him another fine chapter of an astonishing career.