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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."

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.

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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