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Kathleen Ferrier - The Complete EMI Recordings
rec. 1944-51. Mono
Full Track Details at end of review
EMI CLASSICS 956284 2 [3 CDs: 60:56 + 60:34 + 68:06]

Experience Classicsonline


Kathleen Ferrier’s recording career with EMI was relatively brief in an already too brief career. Although he was delighted at having signed her up, Walter Legge’s dictatorial manner repelled her and she soon defected to Decca, for whom, by and large, she made the best of her recordings in terms of both quality and sound.
 
Nonetheless, there are gems here: not least her early microphone testing sessions for Legge, the invaluable Kindertotenlieder for her mentor Bruno Walter and a complete recording of her signature role, Gluck’s Orfeo, in Amsterdam in 1951. The latter is an egregious example of where an EMI version easily tops the Decca: the 1947 recording, made under the inflexible Stiedry before Ferrier had refined and deepened her interpretation on stage, is both abridged and inferior in almost every way to this one. Conversely, the Bach excerpts, recorded almost by accident during rehearsals with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf under Karajan, are nowhere near as satisfying as the studio recordings made for Decca with Sir Adrian Boult. Ardent collectors will want to own the complete sets from both houses.
 
There is a theory that part of Ferrier’s extraordinary quality of sound derives from the fact that she was in a sense a true original, never having been schooled to acquire a “conservatory sound”. However, to my ears, she is simply the natural successor in a line of traditional British contraltos now virtually extinct. The nearest we have heard post-war is another great British singer, Janet Baker. She would surely admit to possessing a somewhat lighter voice with a timbre and colouring more mezzo-soprano than true contralto. Even so, there is considerable overlap in the Fach, bearing in mind that Verdi expected his contraltos to have a top B, as indeed did the stentorian British contralto Dame Clara Butt. Both Baker and Ferrier excelled as Gluck’s Orfeo and in Brahms’Vier ernste Gesänge. Whereas Baker had more of an upper extension and was never going to attempt Fricka or Waltraute, it is possible to speculate that Ferrier could have gone on to sing some of the great Wagner roles had she lived beyond the age of 41.
 
Certainly the richness of her oboe sound, with its amplitude and unobtrusive, flickering vibrato, inspired an affection and emotional response in listeners which endure to this day. This despite the fact Ferrier had a professional career spanning little more than a decade.
 
The earliest items here are those tests made by Legge in 1944 which remained unissued until 1978. They comprise pieces by Gluck, Brahms and Elgar. Although beautifully sung, the English translation of Che farò has, understandably, given the time when and the conditions under which it was made, a rather placid, oratorio-like quality. The aria is utterly transformed by the time we come to the complete, live performance in 1951. Particularly valuable is the aria from The Dream of Gerontius, sung grandly to only piano accompaniment, as she never recorded a role which was surely ideal suited to her sonorous, plangent alto.
 
She signed a one year contract with Legge and her first commercial releases were the two stately arias by Maurice Greene, two sterling Handel solos and five delightful duets from Purcell and Mendelssohn with Isobel Baillie. She then left for Decca, returning to EMI to record Kindertotenlieder with Walter in 1949. The bonus tracks here are previously unreleased back-up takes. Interestingly, the notes tell us that these were “originally recorded on 12-inch waxes, with a tape machine running as safety back-up, as was EMI s practice in 1949. Masters from the waxes were used for most of the original 78-rpm sides, but for the release of the work on CD, the back-up tapes were used, and these reserve takes have also survived.”
 
Moving on to 1951, Ferrier’s Orfeo is a tour de force: the sinews of her Italian have by this stage of her career hardened and she is able to fine down her ample tone to enhance the pathos of her appeal to the Furies. The first cries of “Euridice” send the message that here is a voice of depth and tenderness. Her soft singing, command of portamento and affecting messa di voce all add greatly to the drama of Euridice’s second death and the subsequent celebrated lament. Sadly, no other singer on stage - neither the two other soloists, nor the enthusiastic and expressive chorus afflicted with the curse of the wobbly soprano - is remotely in her league. The Amore is nasal and tweety but adequate; Euridice is gusty and tremulous. The opening of the Elysian Fields scene is especially unpromising, with ill-tuned strings, the chorus slipping out of synch with the orchestra and Euridice twittering unsteadily. Things soon look up with a lovely, rapt, absolutely steady Che puro ciel! from Ferrier. Bruck skilfully brings out the delicate orchestration to heighten the serene mood. As further compensation, the sound derived from the painstakingly restored original tapes is very acceptable. The voices are very present. There are very few coughs and even though the orchestral sound is muddy, it is clear that Bruck conducts sensitively. He is always alive to Gluck’s colouring and paces proceedings aptly, unlike Stiedry’s undue haste. In particular, he gets the tempo just right for Che farò.
 
The version sung is a kind of back-formation of Berlioz’s orchestration sung in Italian, standard before an amalgam of the Vienna and Paris editions became the norm. A modern listener will find it somewhat truncated.
 
The other major item here is the Mahler song cycle with Walter. Many collectors will already be familiar with their famous Das Lied von der Erde. The conductor was a huge admirer of the singer and that respect was reciprocated. Again we notice how Ferrier’s linguistic command has matured under Walter’s tutelage and the interpretations themselves are mesmerising. Her dark voice and Walter’s authentic Mahlerian sensibility make a perfect marriage. The playing of the VPO is wonderfully warm and impassioned. This remains a classic account and every lover of these elegies should know it.
 
The two previously unreleased bonus tracks reveal the consistency of Ferrier’s instrument; perhaps one or two slight rhythmic slips and a desire to fill out her tone more fully at one or two climaxes and apply more emotional weight in places such as the opening of In diesem Wetter prompted the desire to re-take but any imperfections are hardly perceptible.
 
No texts are supplied but there is an informative essay by Warwick Thompson and three rare publicity photographs from the EMI vaults. These were made when Ferrier first signed a contract with HMV/Columbia.  

Ralph Moore 

 
Full Track Details:- 
CD 1
Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Orpheus and Eurydice
1. What is life without thee?
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
2. Liebestreu (Constancy) - op.3 No.1.
3. Feinsliebchen (Sweetheart) - Deutsche Volkslieder II No.12.
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Dream of Gerontius
4. My work is done … It is because.
Maurice GREENE (1696-1755) (arr. Roper)
5. I will lay me down in peace - O God of righteousness.
6. O praise the Lord - Praise the Lord o my soul.
Georg Friedrich HANDEL (1685-1759)
Ottone
7. Spring is coming.
8. Come to me soothing sleep.
Henry PURCELL (1659?-1695)
Birthday Ode for Queen Mary
9. Sound the trumpet.
The Indian Queen
10. Let us wander not unseen (arr. Moffat).
King Arthur
11. Shepherd, shepherd, cease decoying.
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
12. I would that my love op.63 No.1 (Heine, translated).
13. Greeting op.63 No.3 (Eichendorff, translated).
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Kindertotenlieder
14. Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgeh'n.
15. Nun seh' ich wohl warum so dunkle Flammen.
16. Wenn dein Mutterlein tritt zur Tur herein.
17. Oft denk' ich sie sind nur ausgegangen!
18. In diesem Wetter in diesem Braus.

CD 2
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Mass in B minor BWV232
1. Christe eleison.
2. Qui sedes.
3. Et in unum dominum.
4. Agnus Dei.
Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Orfeo ed Euridice (Calzabigi) - 1889 Ricordi edition
5. Sinfonia.
Act I
6. Ah! se intorno a quest'urna funesta.
7. Amici quel lament.
8. Ballet of Shepherds and Nymphs.
9. Ah! se intorno a quest'urna funesta.
10. Chiamo il mio ben cosi.
11. Voi delle ombre oscura.
12. Amore assistera l'infelice marito!
13. Gli sguardi trattieni.
14. Che disse? Che ascoltai?
Act II
15. Dance of the Furies - Chi mai dell'Erebo.
16. Deh! placatevi con me.
17. Misero giovane!
18. Mille pene ombre sdegnose.
19. Ah! quale incognito.

CD 3
1. Dance of the Blessed Spirits - Dance of the Heroes.
2. E quest'asile ameno e grato.
3. Che puro ciel! Che chiaro sol!
4. Vien a'regni del riposo.
5. Ballet of the Heroes.
6. Oh voi, ombre felici.
7. Torna o bello.
Act III
8. Ah vieni o diletta vien con me.
9. Vieni! Vieni con me vieni o cara!
10. Ah dovess'io saper.
11. Che fiero momento.
12. Ah per me il duol ricomincia.
13. Che feci mai?
14. Che farò senza Euridice?
15. Ah! finisca e per sempre.
16. Non piu! che fai tu?
17. Gaudio gaudio son al cuore.
18. Trionfi Amore!
Bonus tracks - alternative takes previously unissued:
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Kindertotenlieder:
19. Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgeh'n.
20. In diesem Wetter in diesem Braus.

Gerald Moore (piano) (Tracks 1-13, CD 1)
Isobel Baillie (soprano) (Tracks 9-13, CD 1)
Mahler: Wiener Philharmoniker/Bruno Walter (Tracks 14-18, CD 1; 19-20, CD 3)
Bach: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano) (Tracks 1, 3, CD 2)
Wiener Symphoniker/Herbert von Karajan (Tracks 1-4, CD 2)
Gluck: Euridice: Greet Koeman (sopeano)
Amor: Nel Duval (soprano)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Netherlands Opera/Charles Bruck (Tracks 5-19, CD 2; 1-20, CD 3)
rec. mono. 30 June 1944 (Tracks 1-4), 30 September 1944 (Tracks 5-6), 20 April 1945 (Tracks 7-8), 21 September 1945 (Tracks 9-13) No.3 Studio, Abbey Road, London; 4 October 1949, Kingsway Hall, London (Tracks 14-18, CD 1; 19-20, CD 3)
in rehearsal 15 June 1950, Musikvereinsaal, Vienna (Tracks 1-4, CD 2)
live, radio broadcast, 10 July 1951, Municipal Theatre, Amsterdam. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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