Mark Obert-Thorn tells of his discovery, when
preparing these transfers, that “previous Decca LP and CD releases
of this material had been pitched shockingly flat”. Well, this
must be true of the copies he was using but somebody along the
line (these recordings have had more reissues than you’ve had
hot dinners) seems to have tried to put things to rights since
my Ace of Clubs LP of the Brahms plays a tiny fraction sharp of the present CD. So little that
the variable mechanics of my own equipment may be responsible,
but not flat anyway.
What matters far more is that the voice reproduces far more comfortably
here than on that particular LP version, especially in “Botschaft”.
To tell the truth I had never much enjoyed this performance, wondering
why Ferrier had insisted on a key which even some mezzos would
find high and with such evident strain. The strain is now proved
to be largely a matter of microphone distortion plus some distortion
added by the LP itself (this song is at the end of a side). With
these matters straightened out I have finally appreciated a boldly
confident reading of the song. All the same, I think it too heavy,
even regal, for what is actually a very light, fanciful conception,
not intended too seriously, but to sing it like that she would
have had to have used a lower key.
This brings me to a fundamental problem with “Frauenliebe”.
I should perhaps first explain that Schumann wrote this cycle
for soprano, but wrote it entirely in the middle and lower range
of the voice, presumably because he wished the singer to be in
an “easy” part of the voice where she could give an unforced,
intimate performance, without any suggestion of billowing, operatic
high notes. In view of the low tessitura the published version
for low voice is actually only a tone lower and mezzos often prefer
the original tonality. You would expect a contralto to sing at
least a tone lower but Ferrier has a transposition only a semitone
lower than the soprano original, with the result that she
is singing consistently in her middle-upper
register. According to her lights she gives a powerful and
moving performance and I was surprised to see Malcolm Walker’s
booklet note stating that “it does lack some feeling of spontaneity
and imagination” when I would have said that Stokowski’s words about her Mahler apply equally here: “Her
perfect voice was so full and beautiful, the intonation always
perfect, the phrasing so elastic, the interpretation so eloquent”.
All the same, if you are used to the more intimate performance
of a soprano such as Elisabeth Grümmer (on Orfeo) you may wonder
if the conception is not slightly wrong-headed and the sheer forcefulness
of her high Es in “Du Ring am meinem
Finger” more in place in Parry’s “Jerusalem” than here. Ferrier
has found an interpretation suited to her own personality and
one would not expect an artist to do otherwise, but as lieder
singing it is very much her own brand.
Even so, I think it is Ferrier’s recordings in German that best stand the
test of time, since her dated style of English diction weighs
heavily on her recordings in her native language. In the “Four
Serious Songs” her compromise between English oratorio style and
lieder makes for profoundly impressive results. Here the tingle
factor is high, even though the tempi in the last song don’t seem
exactly those asked for. “Sapphische
Ode” is darkly effective while in the two songs with viola she
succeeds in lightening her delivery to good effect. These were
also a notable improvement on the LP where the raspy viola sound
prevented me from enjoying it much.
The Alto Rhapsody was a particularly famous performance and Ferrier herself
thought it her best record (though she had not yet made “Das Lied
von der Erde” when she said this). Always
hoping to see the light I sat through it again, but has no one
ever noticed that it’s just too damn slow? Impressive and deeply
felt and all that but it seems interminable. This must be at least
partly Krauss’s doing since two years later under Fritz Busch
in Denmark her performance took 13’46” compared with the 15’53”
of this one, greatly to its advantage. (Danacord have issued this
performance – DACOCD 301 – but the execrable sound means it is
of historical interest only). Whereas that notorious speed-merchant
Otto Klemperer, with Christa Ludwig, took 12’28” and young whipper-snapper
Sir Adrian Boult, with Dame Janet Baker, tore through it in 11’44.
My own preference is for the latter, which offers consolation
as well as anguish (and doesn’t sound hurried in the least), though
I am aware that for some Boult’s concern for formal elegance cushions
Brahms’s nerve-ends. Plenty of nerve-ends from Klemperer (it sounds
more like Mahler); if only he wasn’t so unremittingly loud.
There is certainly some great singing here, finely transferred, and all
music lovers should have some Ferrier on their shelves. Just don’t
let the myth lead you to suppose that everything she did is a
definitive interpretation of that particular piece.