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
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.
Full Track Details:-
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)
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).
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)
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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)
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,
live, radio broadcast, 10 July 1951, Municipal Theatre, Amsterdam.