Italy’s most respected classical music magazine “Musica” sent Stefano Pagliantini to talk with Christa Ludwig. Here is a selection from a long interview which can be found in the July/August issue.
This year is the centenary of Mahler’s death, a composer that you have dedicated numerous performances with some of the greatest conductors of the 20th Century. When did your passion for his music start?
Mahler’s music was banned during the Nazi period. It was considered, like that of many other composers, “Entartete Musik”. I was a child at the time and so I couldn’t have heard his music. My parents, both singers, kept a Mahler score in the library hidden behind the first row of books. I remember too that in a poetry book were printed works by Heine, whose texts had been burnt, but with the credit “anonymous”. After the end of the war I started to listen to his lieder and loved them immediately. The first time that I sang Das Lied von der Erde was in 1954 in Hannover: I didn’t understand what this masterwork was, I didn’t know its significance; I was very young and sung by instinct. When I recorded it for the first time with Otto Klemperer and Fritz Wunderlich [EMI, 1967], Klemperer asked me, “Do you know what the last Lied, Der Abschied, means?” I replied, “It’s beautiful music.” He was scandalised, “No! It’s a funeral march!”
In these years my love for his music deepened, an immediate passion being that I felt so close to his music. He is like Brahms, capable of condensing erotic and kitsch aspects together. I felt that my mezzo-soprano, dark and solid, was very suitable for these two composers. From then onwards I sang Mahler everywhere; wherever his music was played, I was there.
In the filmed performance with Bernstein it seems that you are crying at the end of Der Abschied…
It’s true, it often happened at that point, as though something arrived from the heart, the soul, the music, or even Leonard. When my son was 18 he asked my why I always cried as I sang the last words of the Lied. With Kindertotenlieder, which are songs full of emotions, it’s different; in Das Lied von der Erde, also because of the text, the mezzo-soprano voice arrives at a kind of Nirvana, an other-worldly dimension. Suddenly the voice conveys sadness, a tear, and then in an instant it rises again as though rising to the top of a hill…
Among your recordings there are at least three that are engraved in the history of singing: Das Lied von der Erde with Klemperer, Karajan and Bernstein. How did their approaches differ?
Klemperer was very witty, even if he’s usually pictured as a severe man. Because of a paralysis that struck him in 1939 after an operation for a brain tumour, he couldn’t speak clearly and his facial expression was slightly comic. It wasn’t difficult working with him, whatever he was conducting Fidelio, Mahler or the Beethoven symphonies, his tempo was always right and he knew how to allow singers to breath. Bernstein, however, didn’t understand voices perfectly, and I had to tell him where to slow down and where I needed to breathe. Karajan was always mindful of breathing, and breathed together with the singers; he supported the sung line like no other. This talent probably was developed working as a repetiteur in Ulm. To tell the truth, I worked well with all of them: with Karajan, Kleiber, Klemperer, Solti, Neumann… I was the chou chou of all the conductors I’ve sung with.
With Bernstein it was true love, I must confess. Once I was singing the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier at the Met, and he was conducting. When I came on stage in the last act I had on a beautiful costume and was illuminated by the spotlights… he stopped the orchestra and said, “Hello my Marschallin. Will you marry me?” When singing with Lenny there seemed to be an electric current coming from the orchestra, the conductor and the singers on the stage which went out into the public, forming a circle in which love, sensuality and eroticism became mixed. Bernstein didn’t just conduct the music but he seemed to live it physically as though he was composing it at that moment.
Can you tell us about your fellow Lieder-singing colleagues?
I remember, for example, Irmgard Seefried, a great Lieder interpreter, who was already a famous singer when I met her, a diva. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was a “princess” [Ludwig comically imitates her portamento], individual and aristocratic. At the beginning I didn’t know which of these two I should follow, I was a mix of both. From Fischer-Dieskau I learned to interpret the text. He always said, “You must sing the text and pronounce the melody.” Of course, this is only possible if the technique is right.
Among today’s singers of this repertoire, can you name someone who stands out?
There are many good singers, above all for opera. Unfortunately too often they’re manipulated by directors searching for scandal and excess, they ignore the research of their character, and are too often consumed with desire for quick success and money. I can’t think of any Lieder singers nowadays, but amongst the opera singers I could name Olga Borodina, Karita Mattila and the young Anja Harteros, a wonderful singer who I heard recently in Handel’s Alcina at the Staatsoper who knows how to unite a good technique, a beautiful voice and appearance, and intelligence. I must also mention Placido Domingo who had all these qualities, except he lacked ease at the top of his voice, like Thomas Hampson who, as an American, also lacks 200 years of culture behind him. When he talks about Mahler he’s wonderful, when he sings, though, it’s simplistic.
Der Abschied, from Das Lied von der Erde, with Leonard Bernstein