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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 – 1750)
No. 10, Qui Sedes (Mass in B minor) [5.47]
Part 1, No. 10 Grief for Sin (St. Matthew Passion) 6.07]
Part 2, No. 30 All is fulfilled (St. John Passion) 5.24]
No. 26, Agnus Dei (Mass in B minor) [5.44]
Cantata BWV11 Praise to God [25.55] *
George Frideric HANDEL (1685 – 1759)
Part 1, No. 4, Return O God of Hosts (Samson) [4.31]
Part 1, No. 9, O Thou, that tellest (Messiah) [5.42]
Part 3, No. 1 Father of Heaven (Judas Maccabeus) [7.55]
Part 2, No. 23, He was despised (Messiah) [6.45]
Kathleen Ferrier (contralto)
Ena Mitchell (soprano)*, William Herbert (tenor)*
William Parsons (bass)*
Basil Lam (harpsichord continuo)
Thomas Lofthouse (harpsichord continuo) *
Cantata Singers *
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
Jacques Orchestra/Reginald Jacques*
rec. 7-8 October, 1952, Kingsway Hall, London ; 6 October, 1, 3 November 1949, Kingsway Hall, London *
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111295 [73.49]
Experience Classicsonline

This disc is made up of a 1952 recital which Ferrier made for Decca with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult and 1949 recording of Bach’s Cantata No 22 made in the autumn of 1949, in time for the bicentennial celebrations of the composer’s death. The Decca recital had as its producer a young John Culshaw; it was re-issued in 1960 overdubbed with a new stereo accompaniment made by Boult and the LPO. The Bach Cantata was originally paired with a performance of Cantata 67 made by the same forces.

To listen to the Bach and Handel arias from the Decca/Boult recital on this disc is to enter another world. Boult’s accompaniments do not seem to include extra instrumentation, but in every other respect they are completely symphonic in character. The strings play Bach and Handel just the way they would play later music, beautifully phrased but with the bow firmly on the string. The results are striking in their differences from modern practice.
On the other hand, we are not listening to this for Boult’s accompaniments but for Ferrier’s performances. Her voice had a classical dignity which entirely suited it to this style of repertoire, particularly with the slow speeds and lack of ornamentation which were the norm at the time. She brought a strong emotional commitment to the performances which make them profoundly moving, whereas other singers of the period can merely seem mannered.
All the Handel arias on the disc are unique, Ferrier never recorded them elsewhere. In fact, the recital was partly a sweetener by Decca, with the prospect of a complete Messiah in the future. Decca did record the work but only after Ferrier’s death, to our profound loss. The aria from the St. John Passion is similarly unique in Ferrier’s canon.
Though the Bach Cantata was recorded earlier than the recital disc, in performance practice terms we enter another different world. Conductor Reginald Jacques had founded the Bach choir and whilst the performance is hardly the ultimate in modern views of performance practice, it is recognisably attempting to get closer to what Bach might have heard. This is not symphonic Bach, the strings sound as if bows do occasionally come off the strings, there is a harpsichord noticeably playing continuo. Granted, the sound quality is not ideal and comes over as a bit harsh, but overall this is a fascinating historical document. Ferrier’s performance of the two contralto arias is profoundly moving. The other soloists are not quite in her class but the are entirely commendable.
All items are sung in English and diction is superb, though the rather period translations might begin to annoy after a while.
Ferrier's performances on this disc are sober and moving, very much of her time and worlds away from the lighter approaches to Bach and Handel that are current nowadays. And there is the definite feeling that the Handel arias are treated as sacred music, He was despised is profoundly sober (and very moving) and O Thou that tellest lacks the feeling of lightness and bounce which modern performances bring to it. This is Handel firmly taken out of the theatre.
But she takes the music seriously and gives us profoundly moving performances, filled with strong musicality and emotional truth; she transcends the limitations of contemporary performance practice. No-one could suggest that this is a disc of ideal performances, but it represents a moving picture of a fine singer and no library should be without it.
Robert Hugill


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