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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, J.S.: St. Matthew Passion (Sung in English) / Halt im Gedachtnis Jesum Christ (Sung in English) (Ferrier) (1947-1949)
Kathleen Ferrier was one of the greatest British singers of the 20th century. Her performances of the St Matthew Passion were the stuff of legend, and she herself said, ‘You’ve never heard me sing if you haven’t heard me in Bach.’ In 1947 she began a series of sessions to record the Matthew Passion, but several factors, including a full diary of concert engagements at home and abroad, meant that the recording was not completed until June 1948. The 1949 recording of Bach’s Cantata ‘Hold in affection Jesus Christ’, BWV 67 made to mark the bicentenary of the composer’s death, here receives its first ever release on CD.
Kathleen Ferrier (1912–1953)
In a career of just ten years Kathleen Ferrier gained a reputation as one of the greatest British singers of the twentieth century and at the time of her death was said to be the second most famous woman in the country, next only to the Queen.
Born in Lancashire, Ferrier was brought up in Blackburn. Although she always enjoyed singing, it was through her piano playing that her natural musicianship was first evident. In 1937 she entered the Carlisle Music Festival and, amazed, won both the piano and vocal classes; this led to singing lessons in Newcastle upon Tyne with Dr JE Hutchinson, who schooled her natural contralto voice and introduced her to challenging new repertoire.
After the outbreak of war, Ferrier sang for the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, travelling extensively to perform in churches and halls to support the local war effort. She appeared in oratorios such as Messiah and Elijah, explored the world of German Lieder and learned a host of delightful folk-songs, for which she is still well remembered.
In 1942 Ferrier moved to London and enjoyed opportunities to sing at concerts in Westminster Abbey, The Royal Albert Hall and other major venues, as well as undertaking a taxing series of recitals around the country—she was a tireless worker. Allied to her glorious voice was a keen sense of humour and her friends recalled not only admiring her wonderful singing but also laughing at her salty jokes and saucy stories; her positive approach to life saw her through difficult personal times, such as the annulment of her marriage in 1947.
Ferrier sang in Britten’s Rape of Lucretia at Glyndebourne Opera in 1946 and, the following year, returned there for performances of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, gaining great personal success. The German conductor, Bruno Walter, invited her to appear at the first Edinburgh Festival in 1947 in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, which became one of her ‘signature’ interpretations. During three North American visits she won a popular following and she was a favourite with audiences throughout Europe, and especially in the Netherlands, which she visited often.
Special highlights in Ferrier’s career were performances at the 1950 Vienna Bach Festival, with Karajan, during which the conductor was seen to weep during the Agnus Dei from the B Minor Mass, such was the beauty of her singing. A few months later cancer was diagnosed and she underwent debilitating treatment. Although she maintained a busy diary of engagements, her health deteriorated but she appeared in Orfeo at Covent Garden, conducted by her good friend, Sir John Barbirolli. At the second performance she was taken ill on stage but managed, heroically, to finish the opera. It was her last public appearance and Kathleen Ferrier died in London in October 1953, aged 41.
Adored by audiences in her own day, Ferrier’s art is still admired on record by lovers of fine singing. As Bruno Walter wrote after her death, ‘…she will always be remembered in a major key…’
© Kathleen Ferrier Society 2011
The Cantata was transferred from its LP incarnation, which contained uncut versions of some items which were truncated to fit the contemporaneous 78rpm release. It appears here on CD for the first time. The source for the St Matthew Passion was Decca’s LP transfer, presumably taken from their 78rpm metal parts, first published in 1960. Although there are flaws in that transfer (most noticeably the manual splice-editing of clicks and pops during sustained wind or low string notes), the overall result is much cleaner than it would have been using Decca’s noisier-than-average shellac 78s. I have removed more of the clicks and pops that were left on that transfer, and also re-equalized it to try to give a better focus and warmth to the sound.
“You’ve never heard me sing if you haven’t heard me in Bach…”
Kathleen Ferrier to an enquiring music critic
The music of Bach, and the St Matthew Passion in particular, was central to the career of Kathleen Ferrier, the centenary of whose birth is celebrated in 2012.
Ferrier’s first known performance of this towering work took place in Southwark Cathedral on Saturday 1 April 1944. The following day she took part in it again, in Leicester, and for the next eight years sang it regularly in cities around Britain, for the BBC Home Service, in Amsterdam, in Rotterdam and, perhaps most famously, at the Musikverein in Vienna in 1950 under Karajan.
At home in London her performances with The Bach Choir, customarily with Dr Reginald Jacques on the podium, were highlights of those austere years and were eagerly awaited by thousands of admirers. Ferrier enjoyed them as much as her audiences, confiding to her diary on 18 March 1945, following an appearance at the Royal Albert Hall, “Lovely performance. Wonderful day.” Her colleagues on that occasion included the tenor Eric Greene and basses William Parsons and Henry Cummings, so it seemed quite natural that those distinguished soloists should be selected, along with Ferrier, to participate in one of Decca’s major recording projects of the 78 era—a virtually complete St Matthew Passion.
Ferrier joined the Decca Record Company after a short period at EMI, for whom she made four published 78s in 1944 and 1945; but her teacher, the baritone Roy Henderson, who had already been contracted for many years to Decca, persuaded her to join him there instead. This she was more than happy to do, having taken a dislike to Walter Legge, EMI’s recording producer, and in February 1946 she set down ‘Have mercy, Lord, on me’ from the St Matthew Passion as a first offering for her new company. Clearly everyone involved was delighted with the result, as shortly afterwards plans were made to begin a full recording of the work in June and July 1947 at London’s Kingsway Hall. The recent technological innovation of the ‘ffrr’—Full Frequency Range Recording—system, which brought greatly enhanced realism to Decca’s releases at that time, would be employed throughout and was advertised by the company at every opportunity.
The 1947 sessions, it was decided, would produce just fourteen 78rpm sides, thus offering an abridged version of about a third of the music to the record-buying public. These sides included the contralto arias ‘Grief for sin’ (Buss’ und Reu’), a new ‘take’ of ‘Have mercy, Lord, on me’ (Erbarme dich mein Gott) and ‘See ye! See the Saviour’s outstretched hand’ (Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand) as well as arias for the soprano, tenor and bass, some recitatives and several chorales, including ‘In tears of grief’ (Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder), which closes the work. This abridged set was on sale from the end of 1947 and was extremely well received, so Decca’s sights were then set on further sessions, using the same principal soloists.
Ferrier’s career was developing rapidly at this time. During the first Passion sessions in 1947 she was singing in Gluck’s Orfeo at Glyndebourne and had, indeed, just completed a recording of the opera for Decca the previous week. In July and August she was preparing for performances at the first Edinburgh Festival, where she was booked to sing Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Bruno Walter; and she was already planning her first transatlantic visit in January and February 1948, when she would sing further performances of Das Lied von der Erde in New York and tour the American Midwest. She then undertook engagements all around Britain and in the Netherlands before May and June 1948, when more recording sessions for the St Matthew Passion were scheduled. It was an extremely busy life, even for such an energetic diva.
Joining Ferrier in this recording enterprise was the soprano Elsie Suddaby (1893–1980), who had been an oratorio and concert singer since 1920, although, unjustifiably, neither as popular nor as well-remembered as Isobel Baillie, her near contemporary. The early career of Eric Greene (1903–1966) had been nurtured by Sir Henry Wood, who foresaw great promise and first cast him as the Evangelist in 1927, after which he made a fine career in oratorio and Lieder singing. The bass William Parsons (1907–1975) was similarly successful during a distinguished career; he sang in opera and performed regularly with Ferrier in oratorios by Bach and Handel and in Ferrier’s only performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, under Bruno Walter in November 1947. In addition to these soloists, the Canadian-born bass Bruce Boyce (1910–1996) sang briefly in recitatives recorded in 1947 but did not take part in 1948. Instead, basses Henry Cummings (1906–1989), who sang Jesus, and Gordon Clinton (1912–1988) completed the cast in 1948, with The Bach Choir again much in evidence, the whole performance being conducted by Reginald Jacques (1894–1969). Indeed, Jacques led that excellent Choir between 1932 and 1960 and had founded the Jacques Orchestra in 1936. His work as a choral conductor, particularly in music of the eighteenth century, was highly innovative for its time, though later overtaken by further scholarship and the search for greater authenticity in performance.
All the sessions were under the charge of Victor Olof, one of Decca’s senior recording producers, and the sound engineer was Kenneth Wilkinson.
The 1948 sessions filled in most of the gaps around the earlier recordings but did not quite complete the St Matthew Passion. When Decca issued the finished set (sold in three albums of seven records each) in November that year, a recitative for the Evangelist and Judas (score No. 11) was omitted, as were one chorale (No. 21) and a recitative and aria for the bass (Nos. 65 and 66). Several arias and other sections of recitative were shortened because of the constraints imposed by the playing time of a 78rpm side—a maximum of about 4’40”—but the only aria of Ferrier’s to be reduced for this reason was ‘Grief for sin’ in Part One of the Passion, made in 1947.
The way in which the project was managed led to the curious situation that, in some cases, arias were recorded in 1947 but their introductory recitatives were recorded a year later—one instance being Ferrier’s ‘See ye! See’, which dates from 30 June 1947, whilst ‘Ah Golgotha!’, which precedes it, was made in June 1948. Thanks, however, to the consistent sound balancing skills of the engineers, such ‘joins’ are barely detectable today. The performance was, of course, sung in English as the custom of the time dictated; it was not until 1950 in Vienna that Ferrier sang her first St Matthew Passion in German.
Work at these sessions must have been tiring and intense; time was limited and things had to be right. Happily, Kathleen Ferrier, with her customary good humour, lightened the atmosphere in a way that was reported by a member of the choir, Clare Campbell, in a memoir published in The Gramophone in February 1956. Miss Campbell recalled: ‘I remember her seeming to wage a veritable war against the microphone—although during the lunch intervals she was sufficiently relaxed to be seen squirting cherry stones at the tenor soloist… How tired she would look at times while waiting for that ominous repeat signal—and yet as soon as she reached the microphone, the song she was about to sing was once again the most important thing in the world. I have never felt from any performer a greater sense of concentration, as though the entire resources of her personality were being lavished upon what she was doing. The result was that the song somehow came across as a whole, with each part perfectly phrased and proportioned to the architecture of the rest.’
Throughout this landmark recording, Ferrier’s gloriously rich contralto led the performance, with her colleagues equally inspired to giving their best to the enterprise. It was the first ‘complete’ British Passion on record, its only rivals at the time being a Dutch performance under Willem Mengelberg from 1939 and an incomplete 1942 version from Berlin, under Bruno Kittel. Decca was indeed making musical history.
If Ferrier returned often to the St Matthew Passion, she seems to have performed Cantata BWV 67 on one occasion only, and that specifically for the gramophone. The year 1950 marked the bicentenary of the death of JS Bach and Decca were keen to record two of his less-known works to commemorate the anniversary. One, Cantata BWV 11, was re-issued on Naxos Historical 8.111295 in 2008; the shorter “Hold in affection Jesus Christ”(Halt in Gedächtnis Jesum Christ), composed for Easter 1724, was recorded on the evening of 3 November 1949 at Kingsway Hall, with the Australian tenor William Herbert (1920–1975) and William Parsons. Reginald Jacques again conducted his own orchestra, choral support was given by the Cantata Singers and the recording engineers were Kenneth Wilkinson and Arthur Bannister.
Both cantatas were issued in two formats and it was soon noticed by The Gramophone’s reviewer that the 78rpm versions were quite different ‘takes’ from their 33rpm counterparts; it is from the 33rpm recording that the performance of BWV 67 on this CD is taken. Ferrier’s contribution to the cantata is modest—little over two minutes of recitative in total—but her presence adds grace and distinction to what was, in its time, an innovative recording. When released in August 1950, the original 10” LP was among the very earliest 33rpm discs to be issued by Decca. It is presented here in its first ever CD re-issue.
Kathleen Ferrier’s Bach may not be what we expect of a 21st century contralto (of whom there are, anyway, all too few); but it set a standard that others have seldom reached, in richness of sound and nobility of performance. It is indeed the best of her, as she herself expressed with totally justified candour.
Paul Campion is the author of Ferrier - A Career Recorded, a detailed and annotated discography, published by Thames in 2005. With acknowledgments to Letters and Diaries of Kathleen Ferrier, edited by Dr Christopher Fifield, published by Boydell and Brewer in a newly revised and enlarged paperback edition in 2011.
The Kathleen Ferrier Society
A Centenary Celebration
Kathleen Ferrier was one of the greatest British singers of the 20th century. For ten years she enjoyed an unparallelled career, admired equally for the generous warmth and sincerity of her interpretations as for her uniquely splendid contralto voice.
In 2012, Kathleen Ferrier’s Centenary year, orchestras, choirs and individual performers throughout the United Kingdom are paying tribute to her and celebrating the glories of her voice and musical triumphs. During the year there will be concerts, recitals, lectures and exhibitions dedicated to Kathleen Ferrier’s memory, given by musicians who admire her artistic legacy.
The Kathleen Ferrier Society is coordinating many of these events. For further details about these, and for more information about Kathleen Ferrier herself, please see: www.kathleenferrier.org.uk.
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BACH, J.S.: St. Matthew Passion (Sung in English) ...