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Obituary, Christa Ludwig (1928-2021)

Christa LudwigThe German mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, widely regarded as one of the greatest singers of the twentieth century, has died aged 93.

Born into a musical family in Berlin in 1928, Ludwig studied singing with her mother Eugenie Besalla-Ludwig (a company mezzo at Aachen Opera), and made her professional stage debut at the Oper Frankfurt as Prince Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus whilst still in her teens. Over the next ten years she honed her craft in lyric mezzo repertoire at Frankfurt and in Darmstadt and Hannover, before becoming a member of the Wiener Staatsoper in 1955; her close relationship with the house would endure throughout her career and encompass over forty roles. In 1957 she married the Austrian bass-baritone Walter Berry; the couple frequently appeared opposite one another both on stage and in the studio, often as warring spouses, and continued to enjoy a congenial working relationship after their separation in 1970.

By the early 1960s Ludwig had begun to move into heavier vocal territory, both at her base in Vienna and further afield; she made her Bayreuth debut as Brangäne in 1966, and first appeared at Covent Garden two years later as Amneris. Combining the plush lower register of a contralto with a penetrating, secure top and tremendous stamina, she excelled in roles such as Strauss’s Dyer’s Wife, Klytaemnestra and Octavian, and Wagner’s Kundry, Fricka and Ortrud (her hair-raising delivery of the latter’s Curse at a 1965 performance in Vienna quite literally stopped the show for several minutes). Her interpretations became the gold standard for many of these roles; only yesterday, before news of Ludwig’s death broke, The Sunday Times’s Hugh Canning favourably compared the Latvian mezzo Elīna Garanča to Ludwig following her debut as Kundry in Vienna. (Garanča was among the many singers who paid tribute to Ludwig’s inspirational artistry on social media last night).

Though Ludwig declared ‘some days I wake up as an alto, some days as a mezzo…a soprano – never!’, her repertoire did include various roles which sat squarely in soprano territory: in addition to the zwischenfach roles mentioned above, she also enjoyed considerable success as Beethoven’s Leonore, Strauss’s Marschallin and Ariadne, Marie in Berg’s Wozzeck, and Verdi’s Lady Macbeth. (In the studio she was even more adventurous, recording Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene and excerpts of Strauss’s Elektra, both with Heinrich Hollreiser in the 1960s). Beyond German-language repertoire, she was also acclaimed as Didon in Berlioz’s Les troyens, Massenet’s Charlotte, Verdi’s Eboli and Ulrica, Bellini’s Adalgisa (which she recorded opposite Maria Callas’s Norma in 1960), and Octavia in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea; in 1961 she recorded a refreshingly unhackneyed Carmen for Horst Stein, sung in German and with recitatives replacing the usual spoken dialogue.

Despite her association with roles requiring a formidable, often regal stage-presence, Ludwig’s off-stage personality was by all accounts cheerful and earthy, as evinced by her exuberant appearance on Antonio Pappano’s 2015 BBC series Classical Voices (in which she railed good-humouredly about the tribulations of wearing a chest-binder to sing trouser-roles) and her endearing acceptance-speech at the 2016 Gramophone Awards, puckishly blaming ‘my guilty passport!’ for the fact that she was unable to accept her Lifetime Achievement Award in person. Though her powerful, imposing voice was naturally suited to tragic heroines and villainesses, she was capable of stealing the show on the rare occasions when she did take on comic roles such as Verdi’s Mistress Quickly and (perhaps most famously) the extravagantly polyglot Old Lady in Bernstein’s Candide, which she recorded with the composer conducting in 1989.

In addition to her wide-ranging operatic career, Ludwig was also a superb lieder and oratorio singer, with recording highlights including Schubert’s Winterreise (which she sang long before it became common for women to tackle the cycle), Bach’s St Matthew Passion with both Otto Klemperer and Herbert von Karajan, and Mahler’s Second Symphony and orchestral song-cycles, which she recorded several times over the course of her long career.

Ludwig made her final operatic appearance in 1994, as Strauss’s Klytaemnestra for her beloved Wiener Staatsoper, and subsequently devoted much of her energy to teaching masterclasses, where her combination of personal warmth and forensic attention to detail endeared her to students and audiences alike. Her awards included the title of Kammersängerin (1962), the Wiener Philharmoniker’s Silver Rose (1980), and Lifetime Achievement Awards from Gramophone, Opus Klassik, and MIDEM.

Ludwig died at home in Klosterneuburg, Austria on 24th April.

Christa Ludwig - Ten Great Recordings

(Live recording from 16th May 1965)

Christa Ludwig (Ortrud), Jess Thomas (Lohengrin), Claire Watson (Elsa), Walter Berry (Telramund), Martti Talvela (King Henry), Eberhard Waechter (Herald)

Wiener Staatsoper, Karl Böhm

Available Formats: 3 CDs, MP3, FLAC

Christa Ludwig (Leonore), Jon Vickers (Florestan), Walter Berry (Don Pizarro), Gottlob Frick (Rocco), Ingeborg Hallstein (Marzelline), Gerhard Unger (Jaquino), Franz Crass (Don Fernando)

Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus, Otto Klemperer

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC

Sherrill Milnes (Macbeth), Christa Ludwig (Lady Macbeth), Karl Ridderbusch (Banquo), Carlo Cossutta (Macduff), Gildis Flossman (Dama) & Ewald Aichberger (Malcolm)

Wiener Staatsoper, Karl Böhm

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC

Christa Ludwig (mezzo-soprano) & Fritz Wunderlich (tenor)

New Philharmonia & Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

Maria Callas (Norma), Christa Ludwig (Adalgisa), Franco Corelli (Pollione), Nicola Zaccaria (Oroveso), Edda Vincenzi (Clotilde), Piero De Palma (Flavio)

Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala, Tullio Serafin

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

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Fiordiligi), Christa Ludwig (Dorabella), Giuseppe Taddei (Guglielmo), Alfredo Kraus (Ferrando), Hanny Steffek (Despina), Walter Berry (Don Alfonso)

Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus, Karl Böhm

Available Format: 3 CDs

Christa Ludwig (Carmen), Rudolf Schock (Don José), Hermann Prey (Escamillo), Melitta Muszely (Micaëla)

Deutsche Oper Berlin, Horst Stein

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Christa Ludwig (Judith), Walter Berry (Bluebeard)

London Symphony Orchestra, István Kertész

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Jerry Hadley (Candide), June Anderson (Cunegonde), Christa Ludwig (Old Lady), Adolph Green (Dr. Pangloss/Martin), Nicolai Gedda (Governor/Vanderdendur/Ragotski)

London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC