The new two-disc collection of Fritz Wunderlich's popular output from the 1950s and '60s is an impressive achievement on several levels. Put out by Naxos in collaboration with Südwest Rundfunk, it's a testimonial to skilled archival work -- in Mainz, Stuttgart, and Freiburg -- and skilled technological remastering. The sound quality is excellent, and it's nice to have a record of several Unterhaltungsorchester. It is also, of course, a testimony to Wunderlich's versatility as an artist. In two ways, this collection is a document of what might have been. According to his daughter, quoted in the CD booklet, Wunderlich seriously considered embarking on a career as a popular singer; only a favorable audition outcome at a propitious moment secured him for the opera world. As this collection testifies, Wunderlich continued to record popular ballads with enthusiasm and skill. In its two hours -- and more! -- of high-quality recording, it is thus also a valuable document of a voice too little heard on the opera stage before Wunderlich's untimely death.
I might characterize the songs as belonging to three categories: sentimental love songs, sentimental regional odes, and sentimental Mediterranean exoticism. They're pleasant to a fault. Both in the repertoire and in my reception of it, there are similarities to Jonas Kaufmann's recent excursion into Italian ballads. What Kaufmann sings as "Parlami d'amore, Mariù," Wunderlich sings as "Sprich zu mir von Liebe, Mariù," but in both cases, I was left wishing to hear the tenor in rarities of the Italian repertoire. Wunderlich's musicianship is never less than polished and generous. More than once, I was left whimpering with the desire to hear his Lohengrin. But the collection is worth listening to in its own right.
As a historian, I found myself filled with admiration for the archivists and technicians responsible for unearthing and restoring the tracks on these recordings... and also curious about the circumstances of their creation. The mingling of songs about Heimat, songs about Italy, and one song about the French Riviera ("Narzissen aus Montreux") made me feel suddenly ignorant about internationalism in European popular song of the '50s and '60s. The booklet's essays (in German and in English translations preserving German syntax) are focused on Wunderlich's biography and on the remastering of the songs, leaving these questions unresolved. But the collection, while very much of its time, is rich in what it allows Wunderlich to do. His execution is dazzling throughout, making even negligible songs worth listening to for what he does with vowels, with phrasing. I confess to sometimes skipping through the second disc's schmaltzy odes to motherhood and Bavaria (sic, though separately.) It also includes, though, a charming song about being allowed to say "Du" to one's beloved ("Man sagt sich du"), and several waltzes which I'm sure I've sung arrangements of with German or German-American choirs, as well as a '65 recording of "Granada" that is nothing less than thrilling.
In many of the recordings in this collection, there are conspicuous parallels in tone and construction to opera and operetta arias for lovelorn tenors. Love is unspoken, love is spurned, the return of love is entreated. Love is sought, love is lost, love is found and exulted in. The first disc begins with Wunderlich singing "Wenn der Mond steigt, und die Welt schweigt, dann spricht das Herz." The lyrics and music are predictable enough that I could sing along to unfamiliar songs and usually get the rhymes right. But what Wunderlich makes of them always feels spontaneous. For the sake of his passionate sincerity, and for the sheer beauty of voice and phrasing, this is a collection I've already listened to more than I expected to. If you know anyone who's an aficionado of Schlager, of Fritz Wunderlich, or (like my father) of both, it would make a great present (available here.)