Star mezzo pleads with Leonard Bernstein over breakneck tempo in awkward Mahler rehearsal

26 April 2021, 15:18 | Updated: 26 April 2021, 15:20

Christa Ludwig and Leonard Bernstein rehearse Mahler with the Israel Philharmonic
Christa Ludwig and Leonard Bernstein rehearse Mahler with the Israel Philharmonic. Picture: Deutsche Grammophon / YouTube: Chris Nelson

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

A squabble between two musical giants leads to one of history’s greatest Mahler recordings.

Christa Ludwig, illustrious German opera singer and one of the world’s finest mezzo sopranos, died on Saturday 24 April. And we’re remembering her with this brilliant video, which shows the time Ludwig got into a heated debate on tempo with Leonard Bernstein during a rehearsal with the Israel Philharmonic.

Bernstein, who breathed new life into Mahler’s music and was, for many, the Mahler conductor, was conducting a rehearsal of the Austrian composer’s Das Lied von der Erde (‘The Song of the Earth’).

The American maestro once described the work as Mahler’s “greatest symphony”.

Ludwig, seen in this clip in her first rehearsal, begins to sing a verse from the fiendish fourth section, ‘Von der Schönheit’ (Of Beauty), but struggles to fit in all the words at Bernstein’s breakneck tempo.

She shakes her head and walks over to his stand, telling the maestro: “I can’t keep up.”

The pair then launch into a delightfully awkward, bilingual disagreement. “This is so much slower than I ever do it,” Bernstein retorts.

They try one more time, but Ludwig is still forced to stop as she runs out of breath.

Read more: Leonard Bernstein relentlessly corrects José Carreras in tense recording session >

Alto Disagrees With Bernstein's Tempo

Bernstein, at this point, says what he probably considered to be a reassuring sentiment: “It doesn’t matter, you know… who can hear the words anyway?”

They go again from the same place, with the orchestra. Ludwig pushes through this time but is still dissatisfied. She shrugs and they move on, as Bernstein adds over the orchestra: “That’s the best we can do.”

Read more: Leonard Bernstein explains beautifully exactly what a conductor does >

The 1974 recording that came from these rehearsals – as well as several with the German operatic tenor, René Kollo – was met with critical acclaim, and was described by Gramophone as “passionate” and “satisfying”.

Christa Ludwig worked closely and extensively with Bernstein throughout her career, including in a performance of his operetta Candide. And while she worked with all the best conductors of her day, she always said Bernstein was one of a handful who left a lasting mark.

Ludwig’s voice had extraordinarily flexibility. While her fach was mezzo-soprano, here she sings an alto part – and she often took on dramatic soprano roles, including Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio, and Strauss’ Elektra.

Ludwig had a five-decade career in opera and lieder and remains among the most admired mezzo-sopranos of her generation. In 2016, she was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Gramophone Awards.