mon 20/05/2024

Christa Ludwig, 1928-2021: a selective tribute | reviews, news & interviews

Christa Ludwig, 1928-2021: a selective tribute

Christa Ludwig, 1928-2021: a selective tribute

The German mezzo-soprano embraced the light and the dark at a transcendental level

Christa Ludwig: always a warm humanityWarner/EMI

I only saw Christa Ludwig twice live in concert, but those appearances epitomise her incredible dramatic and vocal rage as well as her peerless artistry in everything she did. The first event was Schubert’s Winterreise with pianist Charles Spencer at the Southbank Centre, at a time when it was less common for women to take on the role of the heavy-hearted wayfarer: the intensity still resonates.

The second time was when she played the one-buttocked, easily-assimilated Old Lady in Bernstein’s Candide, conducted by the composer in his last Barbican concerts: the joie de vivre went beyond the pleasure of simply seeing a legend deliver a showstopper. Thankfully that 1989 performance has been preserved on film.

What it must have been like to see her as an operatic heroine I can only imagine. In my Opera in Depth Zoom classes on Beethoven’s Fidelio and its very different original version, Leonore, I searched high and low for the best performance of the brave wife’s big aria. "Abscheulicher…Komm, Hoffnung’" So many singers embodied the ideal in different aspects of this fiendishly demanding highlight -  we heard various examples before putting it all together – but only Ludwig, in this excerpt from a complete stage performance filmed at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 1963, had it all. A mezzo soprano with a top range more brilliant than many sopranos – much like Janet Baker – she is fearless in the higher passages. But she also embodies the emotions with the focus and economy that every singer can learn from, and the conductor, Arthur Rother, gives her just enough space to express the most intense feelings. As Ian Page, director of The Mozartists who was visiting us to shed light on the score, observed, “it’s lovely to see that level of confidence in a singer. All directors should be made to watch this”.

Ludwig’s relationship with conductors tended to be on an equal footing. YouTube viewers seem surprised at her challenging Bernstein on a tempo in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). But those two had a fine relationship, never more exuberant then when as pianist he partnered her in Brahms’s Zigeunerlieder and other great songs by the master. Note from the cover that the singer probably had to inhale Lenny's cigarette smoke during recoding sessions (all too common back then). Here, in "Braune Bursche", the young lad and his blue-eyed girl in this fifth of the “Gypsy Songs” whirl and strut to the sounds of a Czardas.

Ludwig was as peerless in Lieder as on the operatic stage. If one had to choose a single track to epitomise her art and say goodbye in the most moving possible way, it would have to be the half-hour “Abscheid” (farewell) of Mahler’s symphonic song-cycle Das Lied von der Erde. This music is too profoundly great to be limited to one interpreter, but the recording in question, with tenor Fritz Wunderlich and Otto Klemperer conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra is often cited as a golden mean. And the trajectory of the song – the sadness of loss transcended by the beauty of the world – must reflect how we feel about a supreme artist who lived a rich and full life, leaving behind a legacy to sustain us for months and years.

So many singers embodied aspects of Beethoven's Leonore, but Ludwig had it all

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Great homage, David, thank you. I was lucky to have opera-loving parents, and we lived in Vienna in the late 1950s- early 1960s. I was lucky to see Ludwig on stage quite a few times - as well as some other truly great singers. She stood out - and my mother would listen to that Klemperer recording of Mahler, which is a pleasure to revisit this rainy Sunday morning.

How fortunate! You would also have seen her one-time husband Walter Berry, a truly great bass-baritone of similar interpretative gifts and high intelligence. I gather she wanted the 'Abschied' played at her funeral, or memorial service - I wonder if this is happening, and whether she stipulate the Klemperer recording (she may even have chosen another mezzo, for all I know).

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