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Kathleen FERRIER (1912-1953)
Johannes BRAHMS Alto Rhapsody Op.53 (1869) [13.10]
Gustav MAHLER Das Lied von der Erde (1909) [64.14]
Kathleen Ferrier (contralto)
Richard Lewis (tenor)
Men of the Oslo Philharmonic Chorus
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Erik Tuxen
Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
recorded in Studio of the Norsk Rikskringkasting, Oslo, 14 October 1949 (Brahms); broadcast from Milton Hall, Deansgate, Manchester on 2 April 1952 (Mahler)
APR 5579 [77.30]
This year marks fifty since the premature death from cancer of the British lyric contralto Kathleen Ferrier. Her unique voice never ceases to impact on the listener; it did so then and still does now. She was a seminal figure; one of the first examples of a ‘cross-over’ artist who entertained housewives, factory workers and royalty in folk music, opera (limited), oratorio, lieder and the vocal symphonies of Mahler (the latter thanks to Bruno Walter). In this last respect Walter, and then Ferrier, prepared the way for Klemperer to continue to establish that composer’s music in Britain during the 1960s. This has led to Mahler’s huge popularity today. Ferrier’s career lasted barely ten years from 1942 when she emerged from her north-western roots where she was first a fine pianist and then a serious singer from about 1938. As if guided by a hand of destiny during those ten years, she was passed along a chain-link fence within the music profession from one figure of importance to another to progress her career. The list began with her first teacher Dr Hutchinson, followed by Sargent (who advised moving to London), agents Ibbs and Tillett, baritone Roy Henderson (her next teacher), Pears, Britten, Glyndebourne, Festival directors Rudolf Bing (Edinburgh) and Peter Diamand (Holland), Barbirolli and Walter.

We still await the discovery of the buried treasure of a recording of Ferrier singing the Angel in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and conducted by Barbirolli. Meanwhile we have the joys of these two new recordings, known about but not issued until now, of familiar Ferrier fare. Scandinavia, like Holland, appreciated Ferrier, and she toured there in 1949 including making this recording of Brahms Alto Rhapsody (‘Alto Raspberry’ as she called it in her letters) for Norwegian Radio. She had made a commercial recording for Decca in the expansive acoustics of Kingsway Hall with the LPO under Clemens Krauss. This was a disc she was particularly happy with and a work which sat so well for her. Interestingly Tuxen’s is a swifter performance by three minutes (than the one with Krauss) but not noticeably so for Ferrier, who lingers and caresses her golden low register with comfortable devotion.

The genesis of the recording of the Mahler is quite extraordinary. On the night of the broadcast (Kathleen Ferrier’s birthday, 22 April 1952) a young man called Gordon Rowley was testing out his newly-acquired Ferrograph Mark I tape recorder at his lodgings in Hertfordshire. In his own words he was literally ‘sticking a couple of wires in the back of my landlady’s antique wireless set while she was out for the evening and hoping they did not fall out again before the end. I also had to stop and start between movements to cut the pauses or it would have overrun the tape’. True the first seven bars were not recorded, the occasional beat is missing in the sixth movement and some radio interference intrudes at times in the last, but for all that this is a priceless document for which we must offer grateful thanks to Mr Rowley and to Bryan Crimp for his loving restoration. It is a truly remarkable document. Its joys lie in the musical collaboration with Barbirolli (she went on to make the famous Decca recording in Vienna with Walter less than a month later) but not forgetting the vocal glories of Richard Lewis in his prime. Barbirolli had conducted Das Lied von der Erde in 1946 (though not with Ferrier) and did not start to conduct any Mahler symphonies until a year after she died in October 1953. However this dream team had given several performances of the work just prior to making this broadcast. That he adored the music is clear from the familiar groans and grunts, as well as much string portamento in the Abschied. There is also the remarkable playing of the Hallé, which he had rebuilt during the war years (Janet Craxton is principal oboe here, Oliver Bannister principal flute before he left Covent Garden).

As for Ferrier, her diction is amazing with every word coloured and imbued with emotion, the glorious voice utterly free of the physical pain with which she was now having to cope. Her fine performance with Walter may have justly earned its place in recording history, and also because it is the last extant example of her singing this work before death claimed her. However this equally intense and moving account with Barbirolli has just as much personal love and admiration between them: their shared love of Mahler’s music, plus the glorious Lewis and the Hallé. It is a recording for ‘ewig’. What more could one want? Oh yes, that Dream of Gerontius of course.

Christopher Fifield

(‘Letters & Diaries of Kathleen Ferrier’ : to be published by Boydell & Brewer in October 2003)

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