In Memoriam Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953) = Works of MAHLER, BACH, HANDEL & GLUCK – Bruno Walter & Herbert von Karajan cond. – Tahra

by | Jul 16, 2012 | Classical Reissue Reviews

In Memoriam Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953) = MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde: Der Einsame im Herbst; Von der Jugend; Der Abschied; BACH: “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” from Saint Matthew Passion; HANDEL: “Where ‘er you walk” from Semele; “Like as the love-lorn turtle,” from Atalanta; GLUCK: “Ah diletta Euridice” from Orphee et Eurydice; Interview from August 1949 – Kathleen Ferrier, contralto; Giorgio Favaretto, p./ Vienna Philharmonic/ Bruno Walter/ Vienna Sym./ Herbert von Karajan (Bach) – Tahra TAH 725, 73:22  [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
It often seems as if British contralto Kathleen Ferrier were born for eulogy. Years ago, the Arabesque record label published an LP devoted to Ferrier: “A Voice is a Person,” which offered a telling palpably moving portrait of the pre-eminently natural artist, who died prematurely of cancer at age forty-one. Tahra, following rumors of extant tapes of a Das Lied von der Erde from the Salzburg Festival (21 August 1949), decided to issue alternative performances to that famed 1952 commercial Decca recording Ferrier made with Bruno Walter when she had already been diagnosed with her ailment. Bruno Walter had long sought the colored voice that could best realize Mahler’s intentions for Das Lied; and it was in 1947, in preparation for Rudolf Bing’s new project, an Edinburgh Festival, that he discovered Ferrier’s dusky, smoky, ever penetrating voice.
If the excerpts from Mahler are not cause for heartbreak, musical and biographical, try Ferrier’s plaint from Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion with Karajan (9 June 1950), in which concertante violin, organ obbligato, and Ferrier combine for a direct act of contrition before a merciful God. Three arias from a Milan recital (6 February 1951) complement the oratorio and “symphony” selections, of which Handel’s “Where ‘er you walk” conveys a resonance and humanity that transcend the sheer diction of the processional. Thrice she repeats “Where ‘er you turn your eyes,” each inflection more poignant than the last. She might be singing at a service for Everyman. Ferrier and Robeson, for me, possess this vocal power of embracing the Human Condition. Fluency and lyrical expression permeate her lighter aria, “Like as the love-lorn turtle,” rife with coloratura trills and floating, long-held notes. “Weeping, and sighing, and sadness,” she exclaims, will convert to gladness. “Consoling angel,” one critic rightfully dubbed her. Ferrier sings Gluck’s “Ah diletta Euridice” in Italian, the aria in a major key and Ferrier’s naturally weeping voice embracing despair and hope at once in perfect inconsistency.
Though interviewed in Salzburg by a German commentator, Ferrier answers in English. She recounts her life as a telephone operator turned concert singer. She has fond recollections of Messiah, as well performing for factory workers, when Malcolm Sargent heard her and engaged her for concerts. In 1946 she played Lucretia for the opera by Britten. Her association with Bruno Walter proved decisive, leading to appearances in Carnegie Hall. She looks forward to working at the Bach Festival in 1950. Though this interview succeeds the 1952 Abschied from Mahler on the disc, I auditioned it prior, in the spirit of “Still fairer hopes.” We know that the very process of making this document set a personal Calvary before Ferrier. The ultimate test came in recording for Decca Mahler’s Songs from Rueckert, when, on completion, she uttered through her tears, “That was hard.” Why bother to describe Ferrier’s rendition in words when we have Webern’s reaction to Das Lied, expressed to Alban Berg, from 1911:
“It is like the procession of life or, better yet, of that which has been experienced, before the soul of the dying. The work of art is intensified; that which is mere fact evaporates…”
So, to pay homage to Ms. Ferrier, I proffer the sentiment with which Brahms opens his Naenie, set to Schiller: “Even Beauty must perish.”
—Gary Lemco

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