This is an important release of three live performances by Kathleen Ferrier, all conducted by her great mentor, Sir John Barbirolli. All of them originate from BBC broadcasts. The performance of Kindertotenlieder
is previously unpublished and though, by implication, the other two recordings have been issued before I’m not sure how widely they have been available. Neither the Berkeley work nor the Chausson were commercially recorded by Ferrier and the Berkeley is of special interest because the Four Poems of St. Teresa of Avila
were written for Ferrier in 1947 and this 1949 broadcast must have been one of the very first performances of the score.
In a most interesting and sympathetic booklet note Robert Matthew-Walker makes a perceptive observation, which I’ll paraphrase and expand slightly. Kathleen Ferrier came from a very ordinary background and she didn’t begin to study music seriously until 1937, when she was twenty-five. Yet despite that we find her here, only a few years later, giving intense and perceptive readings of scores by Mahler and Chausson. These works were not settings in her native tongue – her French isn’t always impeccable, yet that’s of little consequence given the quality of the singing – and neither work was exactly common currency in those days. That’s a very telling observation to which I’d add that this disc also shows her in command of a contemporary score and she’d already demonstrated her willingness to tackle new music through her participation in the première of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia
Kathleen Ferrier made a celebrated recording of Kindertotenlieder
with Bruno Walter almost exactly one year after this Manchester performance – the sessions took place in the Kingsway Hall on 4 October 1949 (review
). That performance has some advantages over this Hallé reading: the Vienna Philharmonic, working under studio conditions, is a better orchestra; the recorded sound is naturally superior; and it could be argued that in Bruno Walter she had a conductor who was more experienced in Mahler than was Barbirolli at that time, though in fact ‘JB’ conducts very well. However, I’d suggest that this 1948 performance is a pretty essential complement to the Walter recording.
There are drawbacks to this Hallé recording and we should confront them head on. The orchestral playing isn’t infallible, especially in the exposed writing of the first song – the horn solo at 0:57, for instance, is somewhat uncertain in pitching – and some of the playing lacks polish. However, the orchestral contribution improves as the performance progresses, enabling Barbirolli to achieve a rapt, poised ending to the second song. The other thing that must be said is that the sound shows its age, despite the best efforts of Paul Baily, who has re-mastered all three recordings. There’s surface noise and the orchestral sound can be a bit murky with Ferrier’s voice very much in the foreground.
There we come to the reason why the aforementioned issues are of little consequence: Ferrier’s voice can be heard in all its glorious richness. Listen, for example, to how impassioned she is at ‘O du, des Vaters Zelle’ towards the end of a tragically poised account of the third song. Earlier, in the second song, hear how inwardly she places the words ‘O Augen’ (0:46) and a little later in the same song she offers some ravishing soft singing at ‘Ihr wollet mir mit eurem Leuchten sagen’ (2:30). The fullness of her lower register is justly celebrated but one notices some expertly controlled soft high notes in the fourth song. She and Barbirolli are suitably dramatic at the start of the fifth and final song but then (from 3:15) the last five lines of the poem, magically introduced by Barbirolli and his orchestra, are transfigured by Ferrier and her conductor into an exquisite lullaby; here Ferrier’s mezza voce
is so consoling. I noted with interest that Barbirolli is somewhat more expansive than Walter in several of the songs but this may well be due to the magic of live performance. It’s a considerable and very rewarding performance of the songs.
Berkeley’s Four Poems of St. Teresa of Avila
are too little known, even today, so it’s marvellous to have a recording by the singer for whom they were conceived, especially since Kathleen Ferrier never recorded them. She sings them very well indeed. She and Barbirolli, conducting the Hallé’s strings, project much of the first poem powerfully – once or twice the recording crumbles a little under the pressure - and the ending is especially impassioned. By contrast the second poem calls for – and here receives – more of a lightness of touch, both from the singer and the instrumentalists. Best of all, both musically and in terms of this performance, is the slow, intense prayer that serves for the final setting. Here Ferrier, admirably supported by Barbirolli, is particularly eloquent. It’s poignant to hear them together in English music for Robert Matthew-Walker reminds us that Ferrier was the Angel in the very first performance of The Dream of Gerontius
that Barbirolli ever conducted: what one would give for a recording of her in that role, especially if Barbirolli had been on the podium.
Apparently it was Barbirolli who introduced Ferrier to Chausson’s voluptuous Poème de l’amour et de la mer
– we also learn from the notes that ‘JB’ was a cellist in the orchestra for the work’s first London performance, back in 1919. The source of this recording is a private off-air recording and so the sound has limitations but these are not such as to inhibit enjoyment. We can certainly hear the singer very well and we can also hear the attention to detail and phrasing that Barbirolli imparts to the orchestral score. From the recording there are five bars missing in the first poem, we are told – the line ‘Et du ciel entr’ouvert pleuvaient sur nous roses’ – but the omission, which occurs shortly after 6:00, is well camouflaged and is not of great consequence. Ferrier’s singing of the first section, ‘La Fleur des eaux’, is often impassioned and she sounds positively rapturous at ‘Toi que transfiguraient la jeunesse et l’amour’. The second poem, ‘La Mort de l’amour’ is marvellously done. Both Ferrier and her conductor convey the mood of infinite regret that characterises so much of the setting and that’s especially true of the last few minutes of music: the last two lines are especially moving.
This is an indispensable anthology for all admirers of this great singer. There’s much wonderful, expressive and heartfelt singing here and Barbirolli’s contributions from the podium are just as deeply felt.
The documentation is excellent and Paul Baily has made a fine job of transferring what must have been challenging source material to disc. The Barbirolli Society is to be congratulated on making these important performances available.