, January 2009
The two Lieder recitals, one consisting solely of Winterreise and the other incorporating all the other songs, were filmed in 1994 in Greece. That means that Ludwig was somewhere between 65 and 66 years old, and that, in turn, means that these performances are miraculous. The master class was given five years later, at the Volksoper in Vienna, and it makes a wonderful bonus, about which more later.
There certainly have been examples where an appropriate reaction to a singer with over 40 years of career behind them might be “Wow—for someone in her sixties, that’s really quite good.” That would decidedly not be the appropriate reaction here. Aside from a slight loss of plushness to the tone, there is nothing to indicate that this is a singer who made her professional debut 48 years earlier (at the age of 18, as Orlovsky in a Frankfurt production of Die Fledermaus)! Her intelligence, her wisdom in the way she uses her voice, has always been evident—and here is the result: truly great, insightful, and beautiful singing in her mid-sixties. These videos, recorded in studio (not in front of an audience) were part of her farewell tour in 1994. Since that time she has focused her efforts on teaching.
Winterreise is not a work we normally associate with a woman’s voice; there are some specific hints in the text that it was conceived as a man’s cycle. But if we can raise ourselves above the level of the literal and specific, there is really no reason that we cannot enjoy a woman’s perspective on these songs. Lotte Lehmann thought so, and so does Ludwig. Ludwig actually made an audio recording of the cycle with James Levine in 1986, and it is very deeply felt and beautiful. But this one is even better—perhaps it is the recognition that her long career is ending, that her own musical journey is completed, that informs every phrase and every inflection with deep meaning. Whatever the reason, the infinite variety of dynamic shading, color, inflection, phrasing, added to a wonderfully expressive face as she sings neither to the camera nor directly at us, but to an invisible audience—the combination of all of this is deeply moving. The surprise to me was Charles Spencer, a pianist that I did not know before this, but one who is the equal of the finest accompanists in terms of partnering his singer, matching her inflections, adding his own piquant and poignant music-making to the whole.
For a work as complex and multifaceted as Winterreise, I cannot recommend a single version. Certainly the Quastoff/Barenboim DVD on DG 514909 is very worth knowing, as is the Pears/Britten performance on Decca 1147809. But neither replaces this one, nor makes this one superfluous. There is a lifetime of wisdom, insight, and great singing behind this end-of-the-career rendering, and I found it one of the most moving musical experiences I’ve had in a very long time.
The second disc is devoted to a recital, similarly filmed without an audience, that shows Ludwig at home in Bernstein’s idiom as well as her favorite Austrian and German composers as noted above. You won’t be able to breathe during Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt, and you’ll feel a chill when Ludwig sings what she describes as her favorite song of all, Anakreon’s Tomb of Wolf. Again, Spencer is the perfect partner for her.
The direction of both recitals is perfectly understated. The camera lingers on each shot for a good long time, rather than jerking us around by changing every minute. Shots actually change when musical phrases or paragraphs change. Ludwig is on a stage, with the piano in its normal place behind her and to her right, and the backdrop is subtly lit, with colors changing between songs (but again, always subtly). You end up paying no attention to the direction—you focus on Ludwig, Spencer, and the music. Just as it should be.
As a bonus, each recital is followed by part of a master class that Ludwig gave in 1999 at the Volksoper in Vienna to three young singers. Of the three, I’m a bit surprised that we haven’t heard more from mezzo-soprano Stella Grigorius, who I thought had a splendid voice and terrific musical instincts. She responded best of the three to Ludwig’s wise, trenchant, but always kind suggestions. Ludwig’s intelligence comes through clearly as she describes the thoughts and emotions that should be behind the music, and that should make every note and every word count for something. Her coaching of the Seguidilla from Carmen is a revelation for the young singer, and for us. With all three singers, she finds the perfect way to communicate and we can see and hear the results of her work with them.
A final bonus on each disc is a short snippet from Ludwig on stage in her prime—a 1970 Così production and a 1982 Falstaff (with Taddei); they are too brief, but wonderful additions to the set. As we watch them, and listen carefully, we are even more strongly reminded of just how little vocal deterioration there was between Ludwig’s prime years and her final year of singing in public.
The simple stereo sound is mostly fine, though there were on my copy some unexplained changes in level on the second recital disc. But the balance and perspective are completely natural. There are good English titles for everything, including the remarks during the master class, except the two staged operatic excerpts from the past. All in all, this two-disc DVD set is something to be treasured.