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Music : Christa Ludwig Sings a Poignant Farewell


NEW YORK — Christa Ludwig is singing goodby.

The beloved mezzo-soprano from Berlin via Vienna, now 69, still has a brief date at the Metropolitan Opera, where she is to impersonate Fricka in "Die Walkure" on April 3. Her schedule beyond that still promises valedictories in Salzburg, Paris, London, Munich and, of course, Vienna. Saturday night at Carnegie Hall, however, she observed a particularly sentimental milestone: her last recital in New York.

She had given her first recital at this historic venue in 1965, six years after her Met debut. Now, before a huge audience of understandably adoring cognoscenti, she returned to the scene of numerous solo triumphs with a carefully chosen program of Lieder by Brahms, Mahler, Wolf, Schumann and Richard Strauss.

To serve as accompanist--the noun in this instance is grotesquely inadequate--she brought along James Levine. The artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera was temporarily forsaking the podium in favor of a piano. He doesn't often do that.

Occasions like this usually defy objective criticism. They usually involve much nostalgia, little art. But Christa Ludwig never was the sort of musician who indulged in evasions or excuses, and she resorted to no diversionary tactics this time.

She made her exit with pride and dignity, with wisdom and even a bit of whimsy. She obviously had learned a lesson or two from the Feldmarschallin in "Der Rosenkavalier," one of her most poignant characterizations.

It would be foolish to pretend that Ludwig's voice has lost nothing in opulence over the decades. Still, it has lost astonishingly little, and the mezzo-soprano uses what she has with uncommon suavity. She never stoops to exaggeration, never succumbs to mannerism, never betrays a hint of expressive distortion.

She concentrates on defining essential moods and focusing poetic essentials. She savors the pathos of simplicity.

Ludwig knows exactly what she still can do effectively. She does it, moreover, with rare honesty and uncanny intelligence.

At this point in her long, wide-ranging career, she obviously isn't interested in rattling any rafters. She wasn't much interested in heroic bravura 20 years ago either.

On Saturday, she didn't seem particularly comfortable in the extrovert flourishes of Brahms' "Der Schmied." In general, she avoided challenges that might strain a possibly precarious top range. No matter. Essentially, this was an evening for intimacy, for subtlety and introspection.

The tone at Ludwig's command is still warm and rich, pure and steady. Her articulation remains poised and supple. She found an elusive fusion of fervor and understatement to project the tragic resignation of Mahler's "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen." She floated exquisite pianissimo phrases in Schumann's "Mondnacht" and taught gentle lessons in legato pathos in "Der Nussbaum." She conveyed the naughty wit of Hugo Wolf's "In dem Schatten meiner Locken" with charm that never cloyed. And in Strauss' "Die Nacht," she proved that she appreciates the subtle difference between rapture and gush.


The generous program ended officially with Strauss' "Morgen," taken at a daringly slow tempo, the line ever firm, the tone ever responsive to the rhetoric of yearning. Here, as elsewhere, Levine provided forceful leadership when wanted, selfless support where needed.

After the final aching lines evaporated in the vast open spaces, the audience mustered the ultimate tribute: a seeming eternity of silence. No one dared breathe. Then came the cheers, the standing ovations, the communal stamping of feet that always makes one worry about the structural security of the balconies.

Ludwig beamed and bowed. She actually seemed a bit surprised at the intensity of the response. Levine hugged the prima donna who, characteristically, has always claimed to be only a seconda donna. An admirer stepped forward with a bouquet. Surprisingly, it turned out to be the only floral tribute in sight.

Ludwig offered three encores, popular Strauss and esoteric Wolf as preludes to the ultimate parting gesture: an exceptionally tender, amazingly controlled, extraordinarily affecting performance of Brahms' Lullaby. Forgoing speeches, tears and any hint of self-indulgence, she then strolled across the stage a few times, collected her flowers and waved, casting some meaningful glances at the great old hall on her way to the door.

Her retirement will leave a sad void. Many singers have voices these days. Few have faces.

Incidental intelligence:

* The program magazine was bereft of annotations, riddled with hilarious typographical errors in the German texts and encumbered with some archaic, staggeringly inapt translations. Ludwig deserved better.

* Although her farewell recital attracted a full house, the stellar competition was fierce Saturday night. At Avery Fisher Hall, Alfredo Kraus joined June Anderson in a gala bel-canto concert. Meanwhile, next door at the Met, Placido Domingo was weeping his mellifluous way through the clownish agonies of "Pagliacci." Only in New York. . . .

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