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Immortal Performances - Kathleen Ferrier

Kathleen Ferrier (contralto)
Pianist Unknown
Recorded 1952 from a recital in London
GUILD HISTORICAL GHCD 2260/2 [3CDs: 74.47+65.10+60.23]

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) Mass in B Minor

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano)
Kathleen Ferrier (contralto)
Walter Ludwig (tenor)
Paul Schöffler (bass)
Vienna Singverein
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
Recorded off-air from a live radio broadcast on 15th June 1950 (missing passages patched from the 1952 studio recording).
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Four Serious Songs

Kathleen Ferrier (contralto)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent
Recorded off-air from a BBC broadcast on 12th January 1949
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695) Hark! The Echoing Air (from ‘The Fairy Queen’)
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759) Like as the love-lorn turtle (from ‘Atalanta’)
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759) How changed the vision (from ‘Admeto’)
Hugo WOLF (1860-1903) Veborgenheit
Hugo WOLF (1860-1903) Der Gärtner
Hugo WOLF (1860-1903) Auf ein altes Bild
Hugo WOLF (1860-1903) Travelling

Kathleen Ferrier (contralto)
Pianist Unknown
Recorded 1949 from a recital in Oslo
Adolf JENSEN (1837-1879) Altar
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695), arr. Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) From silent Shades
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) The Fairy Lough
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) A soft day
Sir Hubert PARRY (1848-1918) Love is a bable
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1858) Silent Noon
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941) Go not, Happy Day
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930) Sleep
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930) Pretty ring time
TRADITIONAL arr. Benjamin BRITTEN Come you not from Newcastle
TRADITIONAL arr. HUGHES Kitty my love


The liner notes for this disc refer to Karajan’s stylistic approach to the ‘Mass in B minor’ as setting the work firmly within the 19th century German symphonic traditions. The massive opening Kyrie seems to confirm this, with its mammoth sound and extremely slow tempo. The sound quality of the recording does not help as this is was recorded off air. This performance is a live broadcast from Vienna marking the 200th anniversary of Bach’s death and it pre-dates by 2 years Karajan’s studio recording of the work. This recording is missing some passages and these have been made good from Karajan’s studio version.

But as I listened to the performance I was surprised at how much Karajan anticipates modern views of the performance of Bach. Yes it is performed with a large choir and a large orchestra and the harpsichord continuo tinkles unfortunately in the distant background. But the fugues in the Kyrie have a marvellous sense of transparency and clarity of line. The Kyrie fugues are slower than I would have liked, but Karajan balances choir and orchestra well and you never lose the sense of structure in the fugue. Important lines (whether choral or orchestral) are always clear.

The Gloria opens in a fine crisp, marcato manner and the speed is suitably brisk; forces are fined down for the fugue; no sense of overblown 19th century symphonic tradition here. But, in the Qui tollis the choir are encouraged to sing with hushed tones in a very 19th century manner and most movements end with a very traditional sounding rit. For the Cum Sancto spiritu chorus, the final movement of the Gloria, Karajan sets a brisk speed and the choir are encouraged to sing in a very detached/marcato manner. But it is here that I must admit that the recording does have strong drawbacks. The chorus just cannot cope with Karajan’s demands. Singing the passage-work in a detached manner, though a technique that has become common, does not come easily to them and it sounds enormously mannered and not a little untidy. They cannot always cope with Karajan’s speeds and he makes no allowances. So, for instance, the opening two choruses of the Credo are very untidy. The choir are rather challenged by the speed of the et resurrexit and the Confiteor unam baptisma choruses. The openings of both choruses are, quite frankly, untidy messes, but once the chorus settles down they respond pretty well to the challenge. In the Sanctus, Karajan returns to the more massive sound of the Kyrie.

In a number of movements the singers take some time to get used to Karajan’s speeds and in the Laudamus Te movement he has a positive fight with Schwarzkopf. But generally, the solo movements are the most enjoyable, even though none of the soloists is strictly a Bach stylist. Walter Ludwig sounds a little pushed by the tessitura of the tenor part, particularly in the Domine Deus duet with Schwarzkopf. But, realistically, of the soloists, Ludwig’s voice type is probably furthest from that which Bach envisaged; Ludwig is very much a 19th / 20th century operatic tenor and it is to his credit that he negotiates Bach’s lines with such skill. Schwarzkopf and Ferrier respond well to the room Karajan gives them, by providing such a delicate accompaniment, in the Et in Unim Dominum duet in the Credo. In the Benedictus, Ludwig is on better form but his creditable performance is knocked into a cocked hat by Ferrier’s performance in the Agnus Dei. If this set is of more than historical interest it is because of this glorious track. Taken at a stupendously slow tempo, Ferrier shows little sign of strain and gives a luminous performance which manages to transcend all questions of historical performance practice; it is for such moments that we need to listen to such recordings with an open mind.

Some of these movements (including the Agnus Dei) have appeared on previous issues of Karajan’s 1952 studio recording of the Mass (with solos and choruses recorded in two different cities) and Ferrier’s Agnus Dei is really the principal reason for hearing this recording. If your principal interest is the Karajan ‘Mass in B minor’ then my advice would be to get one of the recent reissues of his 1952 recording which have some of the excerpts (particularly the Agnus Dei) from this live recording included as a bonus.

But for those interested in Ferrier’s art the set has more treats in store; notably her 1949 broadcast of the Brahms ‘Four Serious Songs’ with Sir Malcolm Sargent and two recitals. One is from Oslo from 1949 and one from London in 1952. The ‘Four Serious Songs’ are sung in English with orchestrations by Sir Malcolm Sargent. Though Ferrier is vividly communicative in these lovely, sombre works, I did miss the sense of quiet intensity that she could have brought to the version with piano accompaniment.

The Oslo recital enables us to hear a lovely group of Wolf songs sung in German and is beautifully communicative. These are preceded by a Purcell song and two Handel arias. These latter are sung in English but given in full with their Da Capo. Again Ferrier convinces with her artistry in a performance which is some distance from current practices.

In the London recording we hear Ferrier in a fine group of songs by contemporary and nearly contemporary composers. The recital opens with a beautifully shaped performance of Jensen’s ‘Altar’ sung in Norwegian. The care and beauty of tone that she brings to the Stanford and Parry songs belies the low regard history has assigned to them; and the songs repay her care amply. These are followed by Vaughan Williams’ ‘Silent Noon’ sung with great beauty of tone and line. Warlock’s hauntingly sung ‘Sleep’ is followed by his ‘Pretty ring time’ charmingly sung with a smile in the voice. The recital concludes with a pair of folk song arrangements. In the second, ‘Kitty my love’, Ferrier even adopts a discreet regional accent.

With an artist like Ferrier, whose recording career was so short, there is a tendency for all surviving recordings to acquire iconic status whether they deserve it or no. Luckily, with an artist like Ferrier, nearly all of her recordings are worth hearing.

Robert Hugill

Comment from Guild

With reference to this interesting and expressive review of the Bach Mass, Mr. Hugill mistakenly states that the 1952 commercial recording by Von Karajan contains:

". . . some of the excerpts (particularly the Agnus Dei) from this live recording. . ."

This is in error. As our Recording Notes set forth in the Guild booklet the excerpts included in the Angel album are from a rehearsal not from the broadcast. In the rehearsal, on the afternoon of the approaching evening broadcast, there was some holdback by the singers, a fact correctly noted by Jonathan Freeman-Atwood in the Gramophone review of this Guild release. (January 2004). Thus the broadcast performance of the Agnus Dei which had Von Karajan in tears is not available in excerpt form in the Angel or any other set.

We would be grateful if you would direct your readers to this letter (or inquire if Mr. Hugill would correct his text).

With thanks for your coverage and interest,

Richard Caniell


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