Kathleen Ferrier in New York – SOMM Ariadne

by | Feb 19, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Kathleen Ferrier in New York = MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde; BACH: Vergiss mein nicht, BWV 505;  Ach, dass nicht die letzte Stunde, BWV 439; STOELZEL (arr. BACH): Bist du bei mir, BWV 508; Interview with Bruno Walter – Kathleen Ferrier, contralto/ Set Svanholm, tenor/ New York Philharmonic Orchestra/ Bruno Walter/ John Newmark, piano (Bach) – SOMM Ariadne 5007, 78:28 (1/3/20) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

Because Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953) had deeply impressed conductor Bruno Walter in her 1947 Edinburgh Festival performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, Walter insisted that he introduce her to the New York audience in 1948. The present performance (18 January 1948) preserves the last of three scheduled readings of the Mahler “symphony,” which, despite Ferrier’s suffering a slight cold, rings with her characteristic husky contralto, suffused with its especial warmth and humanity. Though Ferrier and Svanholm (1904-1964) did not particularly bask in each other’s company, the tenor’s resonant, Heldentenor capabilities in Wagner transfer easily into the Mahler sensibility.

The opening movement of Das Lied, “The Drinking Song of Earth’s Woe,” sets the paradoxical tone of work, given the poets’ – Li Tai-Po, Mong Kao-Yen, and Tchang Tsi, as translated into the German by Hans Bethge – detachment and emotional distance, confronting the words with an hysterical reaction and mocking despair. After Svanholm’s impassioned incantation, the New York audience applauds briefly. The ensuing “Autumn Loneliness” has Ferrier’s husky sense of loss, the frost enriched by the Philharmonic’s winds and horns. The oboe hints at the “flower’s sweet scent gone.” Ferrier floats the lament, “Mein Herz ist mude” with heartbreak. The weaving string filigree conveys the icy wind’s bending the frost-laden grass. Ferrier’s pathos breaks loose at “Der Herbst in meinem Herzen waehrt zu lange,” the deep strings’ moving into eternity. Svanhom’s bright moment comes in Von der Jugend, the reflected – and therefore inverted – image of young friends, who enjoy their brief respite from time in the presence of a green pavilion’s pool.

Ferrier casts a parallel moment on ironic consolation in her Von der Schoenheit, a flirtation scene whose gentle and caressing words find “explosive” narration in the orchestra, an indication of the volatility of submerged passions, here set as a conceit of a youth’s steed that plunges through flowers, grass, and fallen blossoms. The “drunken” aspect of life, seen as an “intoxicant” to the senses, returns via Svanholm and Walter in Der Trunkene im Fruehling. The seductions of spring’s renewal do not entice our embittered narrator, who prefers his sated loneliness. At last, the extended Der Abschied, which has Ferrier and Walter engaged in a moon-drenched mediation on mortality. Like Schubert. Mahler invokes, Wohin ich geh? – Whither am I going? In the midst of abundant life Mahler’s persona wanders in death. Along with Ferrier’s haunted vocalism and the interjections of winds, cymbals, and tympani, the intermittent coughs from the audience seem to add a mortal counterpoint to the ephemerality of events. The generous comments about Ferrier from Walter to Arnold Michaelis from Hollywood 1956 confirm our intense depth of response to this performance, excellently restored by Norman White and Adrian Tuddenham.

The Bach program derives from New York’s Town Hall 8 January 1950, with Canadian pianist John Newmark and Ferrier. The songs no less address impending death, loneliness, and the need for metaphysical consolation. We can never listen to these tropes without a sense of dramatic irony for Ferrier’s own life’s situation, which took her gifted presence all too soon, having allotted her a mere five years to share her art with conductor Bruno Walter.

–Gary Lemco

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