The great German baritone Thomas Quasthoff today announced his retirement from the concert stage. It has come as a shock to much of the close-knit classical music and opera world. I had the pleasure of sharing the stage with him a few times over the course of my career, and they have always been moments to remember. I first encountered Quasthoff my first season with the Oregon Symphony. We were performing Haydn’s great oratorio The Creation with guest conductor Helmuth Rilling. Quasthoff sang the dual roles of Raphael and Adam. Being unique in appearance, I wasn’t prepared for the sight of him (he is a thalidomide baby, which resulted in stunted arms and legs, but a normally sized torso and head). And I was even less prepared for the sound of him. What a voice. Monumental, intelligent, espressive, powerful, joyous, and soulful. The Oregonian reviewer Amy Martinez Starke said this about Quasthoff at his Oregon Symphony debut:
Unquestionably, though, the three stellar soloists were the highlight of the concert, and of these three, bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff (as archangel Raphael and as Adam) was a joy to hear again.
Quasthoff, a German who made his U.S. debut last summer at the Oregon Bach Festival … is a delight. He has a full range of dynamics and colors at his command: both a glorious, ringing baritone, and a huge bass voice as well. When he hit the lowest note in “In long dimensions creeps with sinuous trace the worm,” one wanted to applaud.
The Oregonian – February 6, 1996
I also was fortunate to hear Quasthoff at the Oregon Bach Festival several times, most recently in 2010 when he sang the title role in Mendelssohn’s sprawling oratorio, Elijah. Critic James Bash wrote of his performance:
Quasthoff embodied the role of Elijah – not only with his expressive voice but also with his entire bearing. When Elijah challenged the priests of Baal, Quasthoff imbued his bass-baritone with disdain. When the widow pleaded with him, he responded with empathy and warmth. These are just a couple examples of what Quasthoff did to convey the persona of Elijah.
I am tremendously saddened by Thomas’ departure from the concert platform, but I’m forever thankful for the artistry that he has brought to the world through his music-making. His unique voice will be missed for a long time.