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Quasthoff thinks deeply about the act of communication, how to engage with people who have paid to hear him and how to sustain their unbroken concentration. He'll tell a joke if the mood is right. He will also sing a 12-minute unaccompanied new work by Aribert Reimann. Schubert, Brahms, Mahler are his core composers, but he adores the riffs and rhythms of trad jazz (he recorded two albums for DG, to their evident discomfort) and he can bend a blues line with the best of them. He has acted in two operas — as Don Fernando in Fidelio and Amfortas in Parsifal — and Simon Rattle was hammering at him to join a Magic Flute cast in Baden-Baden next year. Not to be.

The decision to stop singing was, he says, "not the be-all and end-all". He will continue to teach at the Hanns Eisler Academy and he has a new series conducting public interviews on a Berlin concert stage, a return to his radio skills. He has also launched a national lieder-singing competition "because the Lied form is dying, all these small halls across Germany are closing."

He spends free nights at jazz clubs and cinemas, or eating at a Greek taverna with Rattle, his near-neighbour. Politically, he is powerfully engaged — "an old-red fighter" — and it does not take much for him to grab a party leader and give him or her a piece of his mind. "I love to sing," he told me, "but if I can't sing that's also all right. I have reached the point in my life when I know that everybody is replaceable. Music will not fall apart without me."

He talks of his "rich and privileged life" and insists that his optimism is undented — "just a little scratched, perhaps". There was always a psychological depth to his singing and he will find other means of expressing that in the years ahead, always in his progressive aim of making the world a happier place. "With the disability that I have," he told me last summer, "I have a very intense way of understanding people very fast. If I wasn't a singer, I think I would have become a psychiatrist."

We'll have to get used, over time, to not hearing him sing, but I cannot imagine we've heard the last of the profound and irrepressible Thomas Quasthoff.

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