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Christa Ludwig An obituary
by Ralph Moore
Christa Ludwig, perhaps the most celebrated post-WW2 mezzo-soprano of her generation, has died just over a month after her 93rd birthday at her home in Klosterneuberg, just north of Vienna.
Born of parents who were both opera singers, Ms. Ludwig was possessed of an extraordinarily rich and flexible voice combined with pellucid diction in whatever language she sang and the most vivid sense of the dramatic. She was an artist of extraordinary versatility in terms of vocal range, Fach and genre – yet she professed to be somewhat disdainful of the Italian operatic school, even questioning whether it was truly representative of great art. Nonetheless, she triumphed in Verdian roles such as Amneris, Eboli, Lady Macbeth, the quasi-operatic Requiem and Ulrica (recorded later in her career for Solti) and recorded a memorable Adalgisa for EMI’s Norma with Maria Callas. Otherwise, her operatic repertoire centred on Mozart, Strauss and Wagner, especially the roles of Dorabella, Octavian and a host of Wagnerian grandes dames: Kundry, Ortrud, Venus, Waltraute, Fricka and Brangäne, all of whom she recreated with such passion and vocal splendour that her assumptions were imprinted on a generation of operaphiles as unsurpassable.
Her vocal range permitted her to move up into dramatic soprano roles such as Leonore in Fidelio, the Dyer’s Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten but she resisted the blandishments of all three of her conductor mentors, Karajan, Böhm and Bernstein, to undertake Isolde, and instead wisely followed her mother’s advice to avoid it, especially as it had shortened her mother’s own career. Hence, she only recorded the Liebestod with Knappertsbusch and Klemperer, a decision reinforced when the cumulative effect of a divorce, the onset of the menopause and that upward shift in tessitura precipitated a vocal crisis in the mid-70’s resulting in burst capillaries on her vocal cords, the temporary loss of high notes, depression and a brief, enforced respite from singing to regroup. She recovered, and as a result, eschewed further roles ruinous to her voice, going on to maintain a brilliant career of nearly fifty years. Her humour, lack of pretension and practicality are encapsulated by her anecdote regarding that pressure to sing Isolde, (reproduced here with acknowledgements from a 2016 article in Gramophone): 'When I told Karl Böhm that Herbert von Karajan wanted me to sing Isolde with him, he raged, "This is criminal!" Then after a short pause to think things over, he continued, "But with me you could sing it.'''
Despite that lack of airs, perhaps as a result of the privations of her early years compounded by the Allied bombing of her home in Hanau in 1944, Ludwig unashamedly enjoyed the finer things of life such as expensive clothes and elegant hotel suites such as are befitting for a prima donna, but she was never less than courteous and professional in her approach to her work, scathing about singers who put their ego before their art and unimpressed by singers who did not know when to call it a day, mischievously suggesting that Domingo would soon be singing Sarastro….
Ludwig’s repertoire was vast and by no means combined to operatic roles; she excelled in oratorio by Bach and Beethoven and Lieder by Mahler and Schubert; she also made a superb recording of the Wesendonck Lieder and Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody, in which music she was rivalled only by her slightly younger contemporary Janet Baker. She even ventured into “modern” music; nothing, it seems, lay beyond her scope. She modestly claimed that much of her success was due to the fact that her mezzo contemporaries were either in the twilight of their careers or mostly sang a different repertoire, but her many admirers would think differently.
My personal favourites among her many recordings are her blazing Leonore for Klemperer, Das Lied von der Erde with the same conductor and the peerless Bluebeard’s Castle she recorded with her then husband, Walter Berry, but her achievements on stage, in the concert hall and in the studio were too many and of such consistent quality that in one sense it hardly matters where you turn to hear that magnificently firm, warm and resonant voice.
Her autobiography, In my own Voice, was published in 1999 by Limelight Editions.