Both Ferrier fans and
lovers of English solo song will appreciate
this wonderful disc from Naxos Historical,
in the Great Singers series. Traditional
songs comprise the bulk of the music
presented here, with a few songs by
Quilter, Stanford, Parry, Vaughan Williams,
Bridge and Warlock also featured.
The first thing that
one notices is that the sound quality
for the time (between 1949 and 1952)
is excellent. Yes, there are a few crackles,
particularly in Stanford’s A Soft
Day, an occasional squeaky wheel
and a slightly remote sound in the Quilter.
However the disc is free of the intrusive
noises that those who tend to listen
to modern recordings find so disturbing,
and aficionados of historical recordings
have learnt to tolerate. Ferrier’s rather
dated prominent vibrato does not detract,
either, but suits the style of the pieces.
One is immediately
struck by Ferrier’s lovely rich tone,
litheness and sweetness of voice, and
how she invests all of the traditional
songs with great character and sensitivity.
The merrier ones, such as Keel Row,
dance, sparkling with vivacity, and
in the more melancholic ones she is
beautifully tender – as in O Waly
Waly, and a version of Blow the
wind southerly without accompaniment.
Warmth, laughter and joy flood out in
more light-hearted songs – the Stuttering
lovers and the concluding Kitty
my love - mirth radiating across
to the listener. The regional accents
she adopts are a true delight, particularly
the fantastic Scottish one in The
fidgety bairn. Her enunciation,
too, is a joy to hear – crystal clarity
reigns supreme here, which is all the
more remarkable when one considers that
some singers of the same period – naming
no names! – occasionally sound as if
they’re singing with their kerchiefs
in their mouths!
I was less slightly
less impressed by the performances of
the original compositions. Admittedly
this is not the best selection of Quilter
songs (with the exception, of course,
of his miniature masterpiece Now
Sleeps the Crimson Petal!), yet
these are all works that typically have
the effect of hitting me in the solar
plexus, sending me reeling back with
emotion. I’m sorry to say that Ferrier
was unable to squeeze anything resembling
a tear from my nonchalantly dry eye.
Not only does she takes these songs
too slow – thus losing momentum and
direction, but she does not invest them
with enough feeling, doesn’t quite manage
to bring them to life or capture their
soul. Although certainly the greatest
female rendition I’ve ever heard, Ferrier
cannot scale the heights of John Mark
Ainsley (on Hyperion), and songs that
are meltingly, heart-breakingly beautiful
under his touch become more pedestrian
and less awesome (in the real sense
of the word) with her.
Vaughan Williams’ Silent
Noon is similarly not as dramatic
as with a male voice – but then I was
brought up with Tear on the London label,
a version I would still instantaneously
recommend to anyone. Ferrier is too
slow to flow, and lacks Tear’s atmosphere
and colourful contrasts. Bridge’s vivacious
Go not, Happy day also suffers
from a too leisurely pace, and comes
across as a little too heavy and laboured.
I would once more advise turning to
John Mark Ainsley on Hyperion for the
two Warlock songs. Ferrier sings Sleep
too straight – she does not give it
the haunting, dark quality that it needs,
and Pretty ring-time is here
too earth-bound. On the other hand,
Stanford’s Fairy Lough is given
a light and delicate rendition that
is quite beautiful.
One does feel, however,
that it is in the traditional songs
that Ferrier really shines, which she
seems to endow with greater emotion,
capturing the mood of the songs perfectly.
Unlike the original compositions, where
the lagging tempo hampered the expression,
the traditional songs are fairly well-paced.
The tendency to be a little on the slow
side here translates as unhurried, relaxed
and serenely confident.
The three pianists
– Phyllis Spurr, John Newmark and Frederick
Stone provide sympathetic and unobtrusive
accompaniment throughout, excelling
in a few places - the Lover’s Curse,
for example, where passion bursts through
in the piano as well as in the voice.
Despite my reservations
about the Quilter, Bridge, Vaughan Williams
and Warlock, I can thoroughly recommend
this disc, as Ferrier’s craftsmanship
in the traditional songs alone is quite
incredible. One need only listen to
Willow Willow to be amazed at
her remarkable control, and her masterful,
spirited and dynamic touch.