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Mutual respect: Placido Domingo (centre) applauds Thomas Quasthoff (right) (AFP/Getty Images)

When Thomas Quasthoff cancelled engagements for the second half of 2011 on medical advice, the expressions of sympathy and concern were universal. Quasthoff, 52, is a unique artist, different from any singer who has ever stepped on stage.

He is just 1.34 metres tall and has very short arms, the consequence of a drug called Thalidomide that his mother was prescribed during pregnancy. His first years were spent in hospital among cerebral palsy sufferers and he was not expected to live very long. Only the support of a close family and his own innate humour and stubbornness enabled him to transcend his circumstances and find his voice in art. "I'm a normal person, only shorter," he will tell you, a huge grin stretched across his face.

Yet in performance he has the rare capacity to turn a vast hall into a matchbox, achieving a promixity and intimacy with listeners in the most distant seats. I have seen him in recital with celebrated pianists who, not to their discredit or his, fade into the background beside the force of his communicative urgency. And after a Bach oratorio or a Winterreise of unexampled intensity he might, like as not, head down to a bar and sing a set of blues, beer to hand, for the rest of the night. 

So when Quasthoff announced at the start of this year that he was ending his career, the response was widespread devastation. He had triumphed so long against such impossible odds that the notion he could give up forever and without farewell was — heaven help us — inconceivable. Quasthoff is the living manifestation of Schopenhauer's triumph of the will, the transcendence of human resilience; he even lives on a street named after the philosopher. Surely he could not give up without a struggle.

Yet his response when I reached him on the day of retirement was "I am totally happy with it!!!" and the reason he gave was that, while he could still sing if he wanted, he would never risk performing below the standard that he had set himself. "I have played Champions League," he chuckled. "I will never be satisfied with less."

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