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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Wesendonck-Lieder (1858) [21:41] (orch. Felix Mottl)
Mild und leise (Isoldes Liebestod) from Tristan und Isolde (1857–59) [6:55]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Alto Rhapsody (1869) [12:31]*
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Abscheulichter! from Fidelio (1804-05, rev. 1814) [8:19]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Two songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1892-99) [9:18]
Three Rückert-Lieder (1901-02) [14:54]
Christa Ludwig (mezzo)
Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus*/Otto Klemperer
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 21-23 March 1962 (Wagner, Brahms), 6-10, 12-14, 17 February 1962 (Beethoven), 17-19 February 1964 (Mahler). ADD

These recordings are well known and well loved, but this is the first time I have seen them on a single disc. The Wesendonck-Lieder, Liebestod and Alto Rhapsody were released together on a 1962 LP, the cover of which is reproduced on the CD booklet. Over the years, these performances have been split up and coupled with other EMI recordings, so it is good to have them reunited to showcase Ludwig’s talents.
The Wesendonck-Lieder were last seen in harness with Klemperer’s majestic Bruckner 6, before its GROC remastering. Christa Ludwig has their measure and sings them with sensitivity, emphasising both the dreaminess of the text and the Tristan-esque unsatisfied longing of the vocal lines. Klemperer and the Philharmonia play Felix Mottl’s orchestration with all the alternating Wagnerian heft and tenderness the songs call for. The fourth song, Schmerzen, is absolutely delicious and shows off the purity of Ludwig’s upper range. So does Isoldes Liebestod, with Klemperer again providing a superbly balanced accompaniment. On the evidence of this performance Ludwig would have made a wonderful Isolde. John Steane notes in the booklet, though, that the strain of that most demanding of soprano roles may well have damaged Ludwig’s wonderful mezzo voice. On balance we do better to live without a Ludwig Isolde and enjoy the many other recordings she left us.
Ludwig’s Alto Rhapsody has been kicking around as a filler with Klemperer’s Brahms symphony recordings since they were first issued on CD, and is still included with Klemperer’s cycle in its current GROC incarnation. My colleague Christopher Howell was not best impressed by this performance in his review of that set, but I cannot agree with his assessment. Klemperer and Ludwig certainly take a grand, dark-hued view of the piece, but this is in keeping with Goethe’s text. If you like Klemperer’s approach to Brahms, as I do, then you will find Ludwig’s singing entirely sympathetic and rejoice in the contribution the men of Wilhelm Pitz’s expertly drilled Philharmonia Chorus make to the final bars.
Rather than leave the CD there, at the 40-odd minute playing time of the original LP, EMI have avoided censure by adding some well chosen fillers to this disc.
The aria from Fidelio is a mere taster of Ludwig’s Leonore, perhaps the best ever realisation of that role on disc. It deserves its place here, but you really owe it to yourself to buy the complete opera recording from which it is drawn (see review).
The Mahler items are also gems. Ludwig is suitably wounded and declamatory in Das irdische Leben, the first of the two Wunderhorn songs. In the second, Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen, she is wide-eyed against the delicate textures Klemperer coaxes from the Philharmonia. The three Rückert-Lieder are essentials for any Mahlerian. The recording dates are telling: these songs were recorded at the same sessions as the first tracks Ludwig and Klemperer set down for their legendary Das Lied von der Erde (see review). Together, they capture the haunting beauty of these songs like few others and Ludwig’s gorgeous performance of the achingly beautiful Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen is a perfect ending to a superb disc.
There are those who prefer Janet Baker and Sir John Barbirolli in Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder (see review), but to me Ludwig is every bit Baker’s equal, and Klemperer’s clear textures edge out Barbirolli’s affectionate wallowings. Both recordings are essential, and I would be loathe to choose between them. Even if you buy this disc, do seek out Ludwig’s other Mahler song recordings on EMI’s budget Encore imprint (5745732 Dog & Trumpet version). Her Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Kindertotenlieder are wonderful, and the duplication of the five songs included here should be no impediment to your purchasing the Encore disc, given the low price.
All told, this is a generously filled disc and a worthy tribute to one of the great mezzo-sopranos, and great singers, of the last century.
Tim Perry
EMI Great Recordings Of The Century


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