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Robert SCHUMANN (1810 1856) Frauenliebe und Leben op.42 (Recorded 12th-14th July 1950)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Vier ernste Gesänge op.121 (Rec.17th July 1950), Sapphische Ode op.94/4, Botschaft op.47/1 (both rec.19th December 1949), Two Songs for contralto with viola obbligato op.91 (rec. 15th February 1949), Alto Rhapsody op.53 (rec. 18th-19th December 1947)
Kathleen Ferrier (contralto), John Newmark (piano – Schumann, Brahms op.121), Phyllis Spurr (piano – other Brahms items with piano), Max Gilbert (viola – Brahms op.91), London Philharmonic Orchestra and Male Choir/Clemens Krauss (Rhapsody)

Rhapsody recorded in Kingsway Hall, London, others at the Decca Studios, Broadhurst Gardens, London, dates as above
Transfer engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS 8.111009 [71:12]


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.

Christopher Howell

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