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 Favourites, Christa Ludwig at 90

Christa Ludwig Given that I could happily wallow in the inimitable German mezzo’s extensive discography for weeks at a time without coming up for air (indeed I’ve used her ninetieth birthday as an excuse to do just that for most of March), coming up with my ten favourite recordings has been something of a Labour of Hercules – in compiling this selection I’ve done my best to do justice to her astonishing versatility as a singer and tried to avoid duplication of repertoire, though in an ideal world all of her recordings of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and at least one more Rosenkavalier would accompany me to the hypothetical desert island…

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Marschallin), Christa Ludwig (Octavian), Teresa Stich-Randall (Sophie), Otto Edelmann (Ochs), Eberhard Wächter (Faninal); Herbert von Karajan

I wouldn’t be without Ludwig’s unusually earthy Marschallin for Bernstein either (though the cast is less even than on this studio recording from 16 years earlier), but her Octavian for Karajan just pips it to the post, not only for her chemistry with Schwarzkopf’s cultivated Marschallin but also for a Presentation of the Rose scene that captures all the tremulous thrill of love at first sight.

Available Format: 3 CDs

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Fiordiligi), Christa Ludwig (Dorabella), Giuseppe Taddei (Guglielmo), Alfredo Kraus (Ferrando), Hanny Steffek (Despina), Walter Berry (Don Alfonso); Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus, Karl Böhm

Ludwig’s in fuller voice (and more alive to Dorabella’s humour and sensuality) here in 1962 than on her earlier recording for Böhm; 'Smanie implacabili' packs a real dramatic mezzo punch (she was already dipping her toe into heavier roles by this point in her career), and as in Rosenkavalier her rapport and blend with Schwarzkopf is matchless.

Available Format: 3 CDs

Maria Callas (Norma), Christa Ludwig (Adalgisa), Franco Corelli (Pollione); La Scala Milan, Tullio Serafin

Ludwig’s Adalgisa emerges as no ingenue but rather as a red-blooded woman with the courage of her convictions on this 1960 studio recording, whether standing up to the bullish machismo of Franco Corelli’s Pollione in the first act or holding her ground in the face of Callas’s terrifying meltdown in the second.

Available Formats: 3 CDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Christa Ludwig (Carmen), Rudolf Schock (Don José), Hermann Prey (Escamillo); Deutsche Oper Berlin, Horst Stein

Sung in German (and with recitatives rather than dialogue), this 1961 studio recording is a left-field joy. Ludwig’s crisply-sung gypsy is salty, witty, and totally devoid of any vampish mannerisms; she keeps her formidable chest-voice largely under wraps until the final showdown with Schock’s neurotic Don José, and the impact is electrifying.

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC

Christa Ludwig (Leonore), Jon Vickers (Florestan), Walter Berry (Don Pizarro), Gottlob Frick (Rocco); Philharmonia, Otto Klemperer

Whilst I love the dramatic energy of Karajan’s (thrilling but rough-round-the-edges) 1962 Fidelio, Ludwig sounds more secure in terms of diction and intonation on this studio recording from the same year – her ability to sustain the long lines of ‘Komm, hoffnung’ at Klemperer’s spacious tempo is a marvel, and she matches Vickers for sheer horse-power in the high-lying manic ecstasy of ‘O namenlose Freude!’.

Available Format: 2 CDs

Jess Thomas (Lohengrin), Claire Watson (Elsa), Walter Berry (Telramund), Christa Ludwig (Ortrud); Vienna State Opera, Karl Böhm

Recorded live in Vienna in 1965, this is probably my desert-island Ludwig recording. She drips contemptuous sarcasm at Telramund (sung by her real-life husband Walter Berry), is frighteningly plausible in her solicitous dealings with Claire Watson's Elsa, and literally stops the show with a blood-curdling 'Entweihte Götter' - the thunderous applause lasts almost as long the Curse itself.

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Walter Berry (Bluebeard), Christa Ludwig (Judith) London Symphony Orchestra, István Kertész

Ludwig and Berry also appear as ill-starred spouses on this tremendous 1965 recording of Bartók’s claustrophobic one-acter: the relationship between Bluebeard and his bride here is warmer and more compassionate than many of their rivals on disc, and though neither was especially familiar with Hungarian both offer nuanced word-painting that brings the sepulchral castle to eerie life.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

Sherrill Milnes (Macbeth), Christa Ludwig (Lady Macbeth), Karl Ridderbusch (Banquo); Vienna State Opera, Karl Böhm

Lady Macbeth has rarely seemed more of a Lady than in Ludwig’s hands on this live 1970 recording from Vienna – her arch-manipulator is regal, elegant and icily pragmatic right up until the final sleep-walking scene, where her mental disintegration is all the more harrowing for being so sudden and absolute.

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC

Christa Ludwig (mezzo), Fritz Wunderlich (tenor), Otto Klemperer

Ludwig recorded Mahler’s great ‘symphony for alto, tenor and orchestra’ several times (including for Bernstein and Karajan), but I always find myself returning to this 1964 Klemperer account for its space and clarity (and the freshness of Ludwig’s singing) in Der Abschied in particular.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC