Kathleen Ferrier Remembered = Songs by SCHUBERT, BRAHMS, WOLF, MAHLER, STANFORD, RUBBRA, JACOBSON, PARRY – Kathleen Ferrier, contralto – SOMM Recordings 

Kathleen Ferrier Remembered = Schubert: 9 Lieder; BRAHMS: 9 Lieder; WOLF: “Auf einer Wanderung”; MAHLER: “Urlicht” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn;  STANFORD: “La Belle Dame sans Merci”; RUBBRA: Three Psalms, Op. 61; JACOBSON: “Song of Songs”; PARRY: “Love is a bable,” Op. 152, No. 3 – Kathleen Ferrier, contralto/ Frederick Stone, Gerald Moore, and Bruno Walter, piano – SOMM Recordings SOMMCD 264, 79:30 (6/23/17) [Distr. by  Naxos] *****:

The restoration of long-buried Kathleen Ferrier archives warrants our unconditional praise and support. 

Contralto Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953) has long achieved legendary, cult status with lovers of vocal music and simultaneously heroic personalities. The Carlisle Festival of 1937 marks her emergence as a vocal artist of consequence, and in 1939 Ferrier made her first radio broadcast. Wartime Britain and a 1942 move to London offered Ferrier the chance to join CEMA, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, and the association led to work with Sir Malcolm Sargent, Sir John Barbirolli, and Benjamin Britten. Fate granted Ferried a mere ten years of active musical service on a major stage, but her impact on music still resounds. The former record company, Arabesque, had a disc, “A Voice is a Person,” that celebrated Ferrier’s art and the often astonishing, darkly shaded timbre of her voice. The present SOMM disc assembles rare BBC recordings and records from the National Sound Archive of British songs and German lieder, 1947-1952, with nineteen tracks previously unpublished, a treasure-trove for the collector.

The recital opens with two 1948 studio recordings from Maida Vale, London, with Frederick Stone, of Schubert’s of Goethe’s “Der Musensohn,” D. 764 and “Wanderers Nachtlied II,” D. 768, the former light and strophic; the latter a meditation tinged with portents of Death. From Concert Hall Broadcasting House, Ferrier and Stone present (1949) three Brahms lyrics: “Sonntag,” Op. 47, No. 3 and “Bottschaft,” Op. 47, No. 1, each a love-song; then, “Nachtigall,” Op. 97, No. 1, in which the bird’s song evokes a blissful memory of an unnamed, bitter-sweet recollection. In “Botschaft,” we receive a full measure of what Ferrier’s chest-tone can deliver when she resonates emotional conviction. “On a Walk” by Hugo Wolf, also from Concert Hall Broadcasting House, projects a pure pantheism, a narrator both “astounded and oppressed” by the bounty of her home town.

The music of Mahler and its association with Kathleen Ferrier hardly requires more exposition: she sings “Urlicht” (Primal Light) with Frederick Stone (1950) with a devotional quietude that defies description. The poet Rueckert’s “Lachen und Weinen,” D. 777 by Schubert begins a set of four songs with Bruno Walter’s accompaniment at Studio 1, Queen Street, Edinburgh, 1951. Goethe’s “Suleika II,” D. 717 wishes to give wings to love, touched by a sense of tragedy. Ferrier and Walter perform the Brahms song “Wir wandelten” Op. 96, No. 2 in an attempt to fix an ineffable moment of love; their succeeding “Botschaft” has even more restless anxiety than the prior version with Stone, and Ferrier’s ability to control her dynamic range proves intensely nuanced.

With Frederick Stone (1952) Ferrier sings more Brahms: “Auf dem See,” Op. 59, No. 2, with words by Simrock, in which heaven and lake reflect a bliss that may quell a lover’s anxious heart. The brief “Es schauen die Blumen,” Op. 96, No. 1 wishes to project mournful tears of love into the streams of the sun, the streams, and the flowers. “Der Jager,” Op. 95, No. 4 celebrates love as a hunter who someday may be domesticated by marriage. “Ruhe, Suessliebchen, im Schatten,” Op. 33, No. 9 comes from the Die schoene Magelone cycle of the poet Tieck, again a pantheistic nocturne in which the surrounding shade reveals hidden truths and beauties to lovers who find repose in a bower of bliss.

Ferrier and Stone return to Maida Vale in late September 1952 for a group of Schubert songs: the expansive “Suleika I, “ D. 720 (by Goethe), in which the piano’s constant rustle projects air and water, while the narrator seeks solace in the breath of the beloved. “Der Vollmond strahlt,” D. 797, No. 3b derives from the Rosamunde incidental music, a wrenching ode to love and death, the words by Von Chezy, the music in dropping tropes. This song has to be the pearl of the collection, for my money. “Rastlose Liebe,” D. 138 (by Goethe) celebrates the “wanderer” motif in Romantic Agony, the constant quest for love, and especially its pains. From the Winterreise set, D. 911, Ferrier intones “Wasserflut,” which allows her descent into baritone regions, assuming with the poet Mueller that a lover’s tears may flow to some desired consummation. The set concludes with “Die junge Nonne,” D. 828, whose message by Craigher endured long a favorite of such singers as Kirsten Flagstad and Elisabeth Schumann. Both Nature and personal travail rail at the faith of a young nun whose conviction that her Savior is at hand remains unshaken.

The last sequence of songs derives from British composers, allowing Ferrier to celebrate her native English language. Stanford sets the Keats poem that makes of Death a seducer. Ferrier (1948) projects dread detachment in her lulling measures, depicting a knight beguiled by a fatal Beauty. Music of Edmund Rubbra follows, his Three Psalms, Op. 61 (3 November 1947), of which Psalm 6 intones a funereal pace and angular modes to convey a wish, more a jeremiad, for deliverance. The flexibility of Ferrier’s tessitura proves the tensile strength of her voice. Psalm 23 must be the most famous of all the collection of Psalms. Listen to Ferrier’s text-painting, such as her dissolve on the words, “still waters.” Psalm 150 offers the most “musical” of celebrations of God: invoking trumpets, psaltery, harp, timbrel, stringed instruments, cymbals, and organ. Suffice it to say that Ferrier’s voice makes a fine orchestra!

Composed in 1946, Maurice Jacobson’s Song of Songs is taken directly from The Song of Solomon. Ferrier (1947) lends a soft and languorous intimacy to the verses by the Queen of Sheba, reminding us that “love is strong as death.” Gerald Moore joins Ferrie for Hubert Parry’s “Love is a bable,” from Freemason’s Hall, 26 August 1948. In the best sound of the entire set, the anonymous lyric, full of mischievous humor, has Ferrier in bemused voice, charming her live audience out of its collective shoes.

As restoration engineer Ted Kendall avidly admits, these records to not match the sound felicity of Ferrier’s commercial Decca performances. But the extensive, intensive labor of love—much via the CEDAR noise-reduction software—has yielded us a document of a beloved singer whose every note bespeaks the uncompromised spirit of music.

—Gary Lemco

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