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ClassicsOnline Home » Vocal Recital: Ferrier, Kathleen - BACH, J.S. / HANDEL, G.F. / GLUCK, C.W. / MENDELSSOHN, Felix / SCHUBERT, F. (Arias and Songs) (1946-1950)
Kathleen Ferrier was one of the greatest British singers of the 20th century. For 10 years she enjoyed an unparallelled career, admired equally for the generous warmth and sincerity of her interpretations as for her uniquely splendid contralto voice. This reissue features 12 arias and songs that Ferrier recorded for Decca between 1946 and 1950. In addition there are eight treasurable items from a 1949 Norwegian Radio recital in Oslo, which include her only published recordings of Hugo Wolf.
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, to her amazement, 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 2012
Arias and Songs 1946–1950
‘What a voice, sir—and a nice woman too!’
‘What a voice, sir—and a nice woman too!’
These words were heard spoken following one of Kathleen Ferrier’s concerts in the Netherlands in 1949. How neatly they sum up one of the greatest British singers of the twentieth century!*
That Ferrier had a remarkable voice is not in question. Reports of her performances during the 1940s and 1950s continually refer to its rich timbre and warmth of utterance. The sensitivity and vibrancy of her interpretations were unique—there really was no other contralto for whom she could be mistaken. The recordings that she made also testify to these qualities and on this recording we can hear some of the special treasures of Ferrier’s recorded legacy.
Almost everyone with whom she came into contact would also agree that Ferrier was ‘a nice woman’—which, many would claim, was a considerable understatement. As a friend she was loyal, funny and generous; hard-working, committed and exacting as a performer. She was admired and loved by fans and colleagues alike; indeed, there were very few people with whom she did not get on well.
Yes, the Dutchman who expressed his candid opinion in 1949 was speaking for thousands of others who, over the last 65 years, have discovered Ferrier and taken her to their hearts.
The story of Ferrier’s rise to fame is familiar. Born in Higher Walton, Lancashire on 22 April 1912, Kathleen Mary Ferrier was the second daughter, and third child, of William Ferrier, a schoolteacher, and his wife Alice. From an early age she showed extraordinary musical talent and was already a fine pianist in her teenage years. On leaving school at fourteen she went to work and became a telephonist in Blackburn Post Office. She continued to play as both soloist and accompanist at local concerts and in music competitions around the northwest of England; on her marriage to Bert Wilson, a bank official, in 1935, she moved away from Blackburn and lived for some time in Silloth, on the Cumberland coast.
During these years Ferrier also enjoyed singing with local choirs but the piano remained her principal musical interest. It was in 1937, when she planned to enter the Carlisle Festival as a pianist, that Bert bet her a shilling that she would not also enter the contralto solo class. She accepted the challenge and surprised everyone, including herself, by winning both classes. She then began seriously to consider her musical future and at the 1939 Carlisle Festival met Dr John Hutchinson, a highly regarded singing teacher from Newcastle upon Tyne. His comments on that occasion are telling: ‘There are possibilities here that are rather marvellous. She gave the most wonderful rendering of a difficult song [All Souls’ Day by Richard Strauss]. She is a real contralto with a most artistic conception of the song.’
After the outbreak of war singing lessons with Dr Hutchinson became a regular part of Ferrier’s life and in 1941 she began working with the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts all around the north of England. In May 1942 she auditioned in Manchester for the conductor Malcolm Sargent, who, in turn, introduced her to the agency Ibbs and Tillett in London. Once accepted onto their books, Ferrier decided to move to the capital and continue her career there, despite the deprivations and wartime austerity. On 24 December 1942, together with her father and sister Winifred, she moved to Hampstead and her career progressed from strength to strength, including many post-war visits to Europe and three tours in North America. Highlights of those years include appearances at Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 1946/7, at Carnegie Hall, New York in 1948, at the first six Edinburgh Festivals from 1947 to 1952 and at both the Vienna Bach Festival and at La Scala, Milan in 1950. At the height of her fame and popularity, in 1951 Kathleen discovered that she was suffering from breast cancer; after surgery she soon took up again her arduous schedule of recitals, concerts and operas all over the British Isles and in the Netherlands, where she was especially popular.
Despite the best medical attention, however, her health deteriorated and while on stage at Covent Garden a bone in her leg fractured during a performance of Gluck’s Orfeo. It proved to be her last public appearance and Kathleen Ferrier died in London eight months later, on 8 October 1953, aged 41.
This release includes twelve arias and songs that Ferrier recorded for Decca between 1946 and 1950; in addition we have eight treasurable items from a recital in Oslo (which she visited on a Scandinavian tour in October 1949), first issued by Decca in 1957, having been discovered some years after her death in the archives of Norwegian Radio.
Ferrier’s recording career lasted less than nine years. She was first contracted to EMI but on moving to the Decca Record Company in early 1946 she was offered greater opportunities. Quite rightly, the first track on this release was her very first disc for Decca—Have Mercy, Lord, on me from the St Matthew Passion, an oratorio she would soon go on to record (almost) complete and currently available on Naxos 8.111373–75. She excelled in this music and commented on one occasion to an enquiring music critic: “You’ve never heard me sing if you haven’t heard me in Bach…”
Although Ferrier never sang in complete performances of Handel’s operas, arias from them featured frequently in her recitals. We hear extracts from Rodelinda  and Serse , both conducted by Malcolm Sargent (1895–1967). Those from Atalanta  and Admeto  were accompanied by her friend and companion of many British and European recital tours, Phyllis Spurr (1910–1965), whom Ferrier would affectionately refer to as ‘Littel Phyll’. By the way, the ‘turtle’ in the title of the Atalanta aria relates to the turtle-dove, rather than the sea-going variety. Purcell’s Hark! The echoing air  shows Ferrier’s vocal dexterity to advantage, demonstrating her flexibility and lightness of touch.
Ferrier appeared in the première of Britten’s Rape of Lucretia in 1946 at the Glyndebourne Festival, but it is with Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice that she is most closely associated. These were the only two operas she sang in staged performances. Her recording in English of What is life? from Orfeo  has perhaps become her best-loved disc over the intervening decades (or, maybe, second favourite to Blow the wind southerly—available on Naxos 8.111081). She sang Orfeo in further productions in the Netherlands in 1949 and 1951 and, most famously, at Covent Garden in 1953. Its music, she is quoted as saying, ‘lies in the fat of my voice’.
Mendelssohn’s Elijah was a favourite oratorio at the beginning of Ferrier’s career but as the 1940s moved into the 1950s she performed it less frequently. Fortunately she recorded two of the principal contralto arias in the autumn of 1946 with Boyd Neel (1905–1981) conducting his own orchestra  and . When corresponding with friends, in her inimitably cheeky way, she would refer to the solemn aria O rest in the Lord as Oh rust in the lard; humour, jokes, spoonerisms and puns were seldom far from Ferrier when off duty but on the stage or concert platform she was rigorous in her self-discipline.
Ferrier recorded only four Schubert songs for Decca, in 1947 and 1949, all with Phyllis Spurr as accompanist (although others have survived from recorded radio broadcasts). In Gretchen am Spinnrade , with a text taken from Goethe’s Faust, the sound of the spinning wheel is heard throughout in the piano part. Die junge Nonne  is Schubert’s setting of words by Jakob Nikolaus Craigher de Jachelutta. The passion of the storm is vividly evoked, with the nun anticipating peace of heart as she awaits her Saviour. These were the first recordings that Ferrier sang in German.
An die Musik  is a song in praise of music—‘Oh lovely art’—to a poem by von Schober and was originally paired on a 78rpm disc with Der Musensohn , another Goethe setting, in which the son of the Muses exults in the joy of love; both demonstrate Schubert’s sublime gift for melody.
The two songs by Schumann, recorded in 1950, were accompanied by the Canadian John Newmark. Ferrier and he were great friends and Newmark travelled with her on her extensive 1949 and 1950 North American tours. Ferrier’s interesting and lengthy correspondence to ‘Dearest Johnny’ reveals him to have been one of her closest confidants. The principal works that they recorded together in London were Schumann’s Frauenliebe und – leben and Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge, (both issued by Naxos on 8.111009). Volksliedchen and Widmung  and  were included as‘makeweights’ at these sessions, in case they should be needed to fill a spare twelve inch 78rpm side. Together they last less than four minutes but musically they are far from ‘makeweights’.
The four songs, set to texts by Eduard Mörike and taken from the 1949 Oslo recital, are the only published recordings of Ferrier singing Wolf. She sang Der Gärtner and Verborgenheit at her first London recital, at the National Gallery, four days after moving to the capital in December 1942; but the latter song also played an important part in her life four years earlier, when it was the piece for which she was awarded the Gold Medal at the Millom Festival in Westmoreland. The adjudicator commented: ‘This is a beautiful voice, full of colour and lovely warm velvety quality. The melodic rendering was excellent and the phrasing almost perfect. Her words were clear and charged with meaning. Her voice is lovely. It makes me imagine I am being stroked’! Auf ein altes Bild  and Auf einer Wanderung  appear to have entered Ferrier’s repertoire in November 1948, when she sang them in recital for the first time.
Perhaps the most intriguing performance from this Norwegian broadcast is Altar by by LI Jensen . Ferrier learnt the song specially for this recital but, it would seem, never sang it again. On a postcard from Oslo to her sister Winifred she wrote:
‘Concerts have gone well so far and crits wonderful! Am singing a song in Norwegian tomorrow—I’m a bluidy marvel! I leave tomorrow for Stockholm & home on 29th—whoopee! Love from littel Phyll—she’s spoiling me to death…’
This song is preceded by a short spoken introduction ‘I should like to sing a song for you, if you will bear with some very bad Norwegian; it’s a song called Altar by Jensen.’ The studio audience is clearly delighted by her diligent study.
Thinking back to the Dutchman’s comment…There’s no doubt that Ferrier, like any other great singer, would wish to be remembered for her voice, which is gloriously heard on this release. But she, particularly, would have enjoyed being remembered as a ‘nice woman too!’—a quality also evident on every one of these tracks.
Paul Campion is the author of Ferrier – A Career Recorded, a biographical critique of Kathleen Ferrier’s recordings, published by Thames in 2005.
* Sir Neville Cardus writes of this occasion in Kathleen Ferrier – A Memoir, published in 1954 by Hamish Hamilton.
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 co-ordinating 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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