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I spent a sunny afternoon with him last summer at his home on the wooded outskirts of Berlin, recording a programme for the BBC. Unlike most singers who fret when idle, he was loading up his Kindle and talking about his priorities. Family, he said, came first. He owed most to his parents who had fought the medical authorities to let them raise him at home and suppressed their anxieties while he pursued his dream. "My mother voiced regrets about taking the drug," he said, "but I showed her many times by taking her with me on tour that she had nothing to be sorry about. I am myself."

He laughs now at the conservatory that turned him down as a singing student because he failed to meet the requirement for playing the piano — "they could see I had no arms" — and he spares no criticism of private teachers who tried to impose their values on his talent. Before he won a television competition and was catapulted to national fame, he worked as a radio announcer; he would always find something to do and a family base for emotional support.

His brother, Michael, a journalist, was his closest companion, "my best friend, nobody knew me better". His wife, Claudia, is a radio journalist from Leipzig with a daughter from a past marriage. These two were the pillars of his life until, over a few weeks in 2010, Michael died of cancer and Claudia ended the relationship. 

A less self-assured person would have fallen to pieces. Tommy, when we met, was fighting back. He talked freely about the counselling he was receiving with Claudia in an attempt to rebuild their marriage, "the most intensive learning process of my life".  When he spoke of his grief at Michael's death, he recalled his lasting joy in the life they shared: "so long as I am alive, that will not be forgotten." Everything he does conveys a sense of pleasure. "On stage, too, I believe we have to show we enjoy it," he exclaims. "It has to be fun."

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau has described him to me as the finest lieder singer of our time. The two baritones have much in common: both are intelligent, inquisitive and resolute in a particular north German way that pursues a line of argument or interpretation to the very limits of logic, until it becomes transparent. Brahms, for both, was the acme of "the relationship between the music and the language", and both articulated every note and syllable as if each was of the absolute essence.

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