OPERA NEWS - The Christa Ludwig Edition
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The Christa Ludwig Edition

CD Button Arias and songs by composers from Bach to Bernstein. Various supporting artists, pianists, orchestras and conductors. DG 479 8707 (12)

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THERE HAS NEVER BEEN a more soothing voice than Christa Ludwig’s. Her unmistakable, deep-purple timbre envelops the listener in a velvet cloak. She excelled equally in intimate, legato-oriented lieder and the largest-scale operatic repertoire, where her sound expanded with glorious brilliance.

This box-set commemorates the peerless German mezzo-soprano’s ninetieth birthday with recordings made from 1955 to 1993, providing examples of her voice and artistry that can be returned to repeatedly with immeasurable joy and gratitude. The set offers much opera while also covering oratorio, concert works and song literature, with which Ludwig was closely associated. Captivatingly at ease early on in lyric mezzo parts (we hear Cherubino and Dorabella), the operatic Ludwig subsequently took on several soprano roles. Her Kundry—skillfully combining her aria’s motherly and sensual qualities—is sublime; her Marschallin proves unaffectedly appealing; and her Dyer’s Wife is stupendous in “Mir anvertraut,” opposite Walter Berry’s heartrending Barak.

The Wagner mezzo roles were Ludwig’s specialty, although Brangäne at Bayreuth in 1966, by her own admission a difficult experience, does reveal undue vocal tension. Of the Fricka–Wotan and Waltraute–Brünnhilde confrontations, each heard in two versions, the earlier performances under Solti are preferable. By then, Ludwig’s vocal and artistic maturity was complete, and she sings each scene as if she were a woman—or rather, a goddess—utterly possessed by the intensity of her feelings.

Other roles include Humperdinck’s Witch, terrifically vivid; Strauss’s Klytämnestra, believably agonized; and Bartók’s Judith, with Berry’s tonal beauty as Bluebeard matching his partner’s. Quite unexpected is an excerpt from Giulio Cesare: Ludwig’s Cornelia duets affectingly with a tenorSesto—Wunderlich, no less.

Of Ludwig’s several French roles, we hear only Debussy’s Geneviève, quietly eloquent in the letter-reading. Among five Italian parts, Puccini’s Zia Principessa is particularly successful in the character’s cool implacability, even if Ludwig’s voice doesn’t quite open out at the bottom.

Ludwig’s work as a concert artist is immensely pleasurable. In the Bach arias, her flexibility and buoyancy pay continual dividends. (Another surprise—the Bach, and also Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, show that Ludwig’s technical prowess encompassed a splendid trill.) “Premiers transports,” from Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette, seems oddly neutral, but Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody is beyond praise. The mezzo begins the “Lux aeterna” from the Verdi Requiem with incomparable serenity, and she blends ideally with Ghiaurov and Cossutta, each in rare form. 

This set also confirms Ludwig’s exalted stature among Mahler interpreters. The sheer authority of her singing in Das Lied von der Erde, Kindertotenlieder and especially the Rückert Lieder yields cherishable performances. Indeed, her “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” should be therapeutic for anyone enduring tough times—ditto Ludwig’s incomparably moving “Urlicht.” Under Bernstein’s baton, she’s rock-solid in the final movement of Symphony No. 2 (joined by the exquisite Barbara Hendricks and the noble-voiced Westminster Choir) and the alto portion of Symphony No. 3, where she demonstrates that even a single consonant—in this case, the “W” of the word “Weh”—can express a world of meaning.

On the disc devoted to Ludwig’s collaboration with Bernstein, she experiences a moment of strain in his “Jeremiah” symphony, but she projects the Hebrew text convincingly. She has a grand time in excerpts from Candide, though here Bernstein lets her down with sluggish pacing. 

As for piano-accompanied lieder, there are three full discs of Schubert. Ludwig has a memorably dignified, unforced way with “Die junge Nonne,” and her charmingly confiding “Lachen und Weinen” makes that thrice-familiar number feel fresh. “Frühlingsglaube” is classic Ludwig, both in the luscious tone and in the sensitive communication. Schubert’s song with female chorus “Zögernd leise” finds a delectable smile coloring Ludwig’s voice, and her gifts as a storyteller come powerfully to the fore in “Der Zwerg.”

The mezzo’s achievements in recital included seventy-two performances of Winterreise during a period when few women sang this cycle. If the version here (luminously accompanied by James Levine) isn’t devastating, it certainly touches the heart, making an impact through consummate technical control, unexaggerated textual projection and thorough command of mood, whether bleak (“Gefrorne Tränen”), nostalgic (“Frühlingstraum”) or stormy (“Der stürmische Morgen”).

All the Schumann songs are delightful, above all Ludwig’s vibrant “Waldesgespräch” and the notoriously difficult “Mondnacht,” in which the legato is perfectly sculpted. Moving to Wolf, Ludwig takes on the Mignon-Lieder, living every moment. (Listen to her shattering “Kennst du das Land”!) The set concludes with twenty-four songs from the Italienisches Liederbuch, in which Daniel Barenboim’s virtuosity at the piano is very welcome. Only occasionally does Ludwig verge on overwhelming this music with excessively sumptuous tone. She masters “Wer rief dich denn?,” with its tricky harmonic changes in almost every phrase, while her natural adorability makes gems of “Du denkst mit einem Fädchen” and “Ich esse nun mein Brot.”

This set’s booklet includes two interviews. The lengthier one—which can be heard on the discs, albeit auf Deutsch—devotes excessive attention to Böhm, Bernstein and especially Karajan. (What were Ludwig’s feelings toward her repertoire? We read only of her surprising dislike of singing Mozart.) The other interview, although much shorter, is varied and fascinating.  —Roger Pines

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