The voice that still touches hearts
In September 2003, 50 years after Kathleen Ferrier's death, Martin Cullingford told the story of, in Bruno Walter's words, 'A soul full of joy'.
On June 30, 1944, the little-known Kathleen Ferrier first walked into a recording studio, to make a test recording for HMV of arias by Gluck, Brahms and Elgar. In October 1952 she made her last recording – Bach and Handel arias with Sir Adrian Boult for Decca. She died of cancer the following year.
A tragically short career – yet in that decade she became one of Britain's leading concert artists, achieving international renown and adoration, and leaving behind a discography that ranks as one of the most enduring and much-loved of any singer (and even now is being supplemented with newly discovered and re-mastered off-the-air recordings). Leading composers including Benjamin Britten and Arthur Bliss were inspired to write specifically for her voice. Her performances of Mahler helped ingratiate his work with British audiences, and remain some of the most compelling accounts of his lieder. Her recordings of Baroque arias, while far removed from the approach of today's singers, possess a sombre reflectiveness.
Ferrier's deep, English contralto voice (Dame Janet Baker talks of its 'dark milk chocolate quality') is unlike anything cultivated today, yet it still invokes powerful reactions in modern listeners and artists. Susan Gritton, the 1994 winner of the Kathleen Ferrier Award (launched in 1956) cites her communicative powers as of most influence for her and her peers. 'It's her extraordinary sound that draws you in, and her direct connection with the words, with the heart of what she's singing, which seems to outlast interpretative changes.'
For composer Jocelyn Pock, who sampled Ferrier for her piece Blow the Wind: Pie Jesu, it is the voice's connotations, as much as its musicality, that has greatest resonance. 'Her voice really encapsulates an age past. It's a kind of nostalgia for an age that I wasn't alive in...just such an extraordinarily unique voice, like no other, and immediately recognisable.'
Ferrier was born on April 22, 1912, in Higher Walton, near Preston, moving to Blackburn 18 months later. Leaving school at 14, she worked as a telephone operator until her marriage in 1935 (dissolved after 12 years), moving soon afterwards to Silloth, Cumbria where her husband was appointed bank manager. She became an accomplished pianist, performing throughout the North West amateur music scene. In March 1937 she won both the piano and the singing competitions at the Carlisle Festival. She only entered the latter category after her husband bet her a shilling that she wouldn't dare to. Thus, aged 24 – and largely by chance – her career as a singer began.
The consensus from those who knew Ferrier is that she was a delightfully down-to-earth individual, un-prima donna-ish to the end, with a sense of humour which, wrote Sir John Barbirolli, 'was of the broadest...some of her comments on people and personalities in the musical world were edged with an almost Restoration sense of imagery and directness'. Her correspondence hints at this, and echoes her contemporaries' recollections of her buoyant enthusiasm and direct informality, and a new book of her letters and diary entries, compiled by Christopher Fifield (Boydell and Brewer: 2003) promises an even greater insight into her personality.
Ferrier initially studied with JE Hutchinson, a teacher based in Newcastle, performing wherever she could across the North of England. In 1941 she began travelling extensively with the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, which arranged moraleboosting concerts for troop camps, offices and factories. In December that year, she sang in two Messiahs with Isobel Baillie and the Hallé.
Things moved swiftly from there. The following year she sang for Malcolm Sargent in the ballroom of a Manchester hotel, who later arranged an audition with John Tillett of concert agents Ibbs and Tillett. It took place in an empty Wigmore Hall in July 1942, and he immediately signed her up. Ferrier then moved to London where her first engagement was a Brahms and Schubert lunchtime recital at the National Gallery, organised by Dame Myra Hess, on December 28.
In his biography of Ferrier (Kathleen; Hutchinson: 1988) Maurice Leonard writes that 'by now, several people, whose opinions she respected, had told her that her interpretation was lacking in emotional conviction'. She decided to take action. Earlier that month she had sung with the baritone Roy Henderson in Elijah (her first Ibbs and Tillett booking), and afterwards had asked him: how did I do? 'Very good,' he had replied 'but you must learn your work better.' A few weeks later she turned up at the Royal Academy of Music, where he taught, and asked him for lessons. Henderson had detected 'something out of the ordinary about the basic quality of her voice', and agreed to take her on. 'Kathleen was born with a wonderful cavity at the back of the throat,' he wrote in Kathleen Ferrier: A Memoir (Hamish Hamilton: 1954). 'One could have shot a fair-sized apple right to the back of her throat without obstruction. This space gave her that depth and roundness of tone which was distinctive. The voice rolled out because there was nothing to stop it.'
A recital with pianist Gerald Moore (the first of many) in March 1943 was followed by a tour of Scotland. In May came the concert that perhaps first brought her to the public's consciousness – Messiah, with Peter Pears, Isobel Baillie and William Parson in Westminster Abbey, conducted by Reginald Jacques. More importantly, among the audience was Benjamin Britten, who when writing The Rape of Lucretia in 1945 for Glyndebourne the following year, chose her for the title role.
Other milestones came first. In 1944 her debut disc was released (two songs by Maurice Greene, which can be heard on EMI's Kindertotenlieder disc), and she first sang in The Dream of Gerontius. Barbirolli later said her Angel left 'a memory of physical and spiritual loveliness that will surely have enriched [listeners'] lives forever'. She had first encountered the conductor earlier that year. She had been petrified by him (he threw a score, narrowly missing her), and he thought her performance (of Elgar's Sea Pictures) 'competent and cold-blooded'. There was little hint of their later great friendship and mutual respect. The following year saw her second disc and her Proms debut.
It was a considerable leap of faith on Britten's part to offer Ferrier the role of Lucretia (along with Nancy Evans – there were two casts). It was her stage debut, and she was her own greatest critic of her acting ability.
'I couldn't believe how difficult it was just to do the simplest arm movements without feeling like a broken-down windmill,' she said. (When she returned to Glyndebourne the following year for Orfeo ed Euridice she found the experience far less congenial – conductor Fritz Stiedry reduced her to tears with his criticism of her lack of stagecraft. The critics, however, praised her.)
Though Ferrier's performance in Lucretia received critical praise, the reception of the production was subdued – a subsequent national tour often played to half-empty houses. A Dutch tour (Ferrier's first trip abroad) met with much greater success – a recording from Amsterdam surfaced in 1980, and a CD containing her sections was issued (Britten had later revised certain other sections, which his estate withheld permission to release).
It is sad that so little of Ferrier's Britten survives – particularlygiven the composer's obvious affection for both her voice and personality. A recording of the Spring Symphony – the contralto part of which Britten wrote for her – surfaced in 1991, and was subsequently released by Decca. Though the sound quality is at times poor, the recording sheds light on how well Britten wrote for Ferrier's voice, the part operating comfortably within her range, as John Steane points out in the sleeve notes. There is, however, no recording of Britten's Abraham and Isaac – which Ferrier, Pears and Britten premiered in 1952 – illness having thwarted several plans to record it.
Immediately after the 1947 Glyndebourne season, Ferrier took part in a complete St Matthew Passion recording for Decca, conducted by Jacques. Later that year she sang Das Lied von der Erde at the inauguration of the Edinburgh festival, with Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic. At the time, Mahler was largely unknown to British audiences, and Ferrier was for many their introduction to the composer. Walter thought hers the perfect voice for this complex, and deeply and openly emotional, music, later writing that she 'had the intuitive understanding of the full variety of human emotions, and she could express them in her art with persuasive intensity.' Invitations followed, including one to tour the US in 1948.
Her career reached its zenith over the next two years. 1949 saw the premiere of the Spring Symphony in Amsterdam, the first appearance by a British singer at the Salzburg Festival (Das Lied, with Walter), a recording of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder for Columbia, and performances on six consecutive evenings at the Edinburgh Festival, including a Schubert, Brahms and Schumann lieder recital accompanied by Walter, available on Decca. In his invaluable guide to the Ferrier discography, Ferrier - A Career Recorded (Julia MacRae: 1992), Paul Campion describes the Edinburgh recital as 'one of the best examples that survive of the way in which Kathleen responded to a live audience' (though Alan Blyth does warn listeners that Walter's playing is 'to put it mildly, idiosyncratic'). She also recorded some traditional English songs for Decca - audiences enjoyed the relaxed charin she brought to such pieces as Blow the Wind Southerly, which became something of a signature time. 1950 brought another US tour, a recording for Decca of Schumann's Frauenliebe und -Leben, performances of Bach's St Matthew Passion and Mass in B Minor under Herbert von Karajan (who was seen to weep as Ferrier began the 'Agnus Dei' in the latter), and a recital with Pears and Britten at Westminster Hall to raise funds for the United Nations.
In 1951 Ferrier was diagnosed with cancer and underwent the first of many operations. Happier events that year included Mahler's Second Symphony with the Concertgebouw under Otto Klemperer (though Ferrier didn't warm to him, disliking his sarcasm) which was released by Decca in 1982; a performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor under Georges Enescu (discovered in the late 1980s and released on BBC Legends); and performances of Orfeo, including one in Amsterdam under Charles Bruck, a recording of which later surfaced, and extracts released by EMI.
Though she initially appeared to make a recovery, ill-health was to trouble Ferrier from this point on. Many choose to listen to her later recordings in the light of this knowledge. The 1952 Decca recording of Das Lied von der Erde with tenor Julius Patzak and Walter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, Ferrier's most famous recording, is particularly prone to such retrospective interpretation. Walter himself encourages it: 'there was an overtone of finality in voice and emotion, there was a strange radiance in her eyes that made her performance – within the ideal rendering of Mahier's work – a poignant, personal message,' he wrote. For him it was a farewell, as the two never met again. Hindsight, however, can make romantics of us all, and whether one chooses to hear this as Mahier's farewell or in some way Ferrier's, it remains a passionate and affecting performance, particularly the finale, 'Der Abschied'.
That summer Barbirolli had persuaded Covent Garden to stage a new production of Orfeo ed Euridice in February 1953, to be mounted around Ferrier and sung in English. The preparations for the production coincided with an increased severity of her illness. She battled on, but during the second of four planned performances was struck by an agonising pain in her leg (a bone had partially disintegrated). Up until this point, recalls Adele Leigh (who was on stage at the time), she had managed to hide the extent of her illness from the other singers. Ferrier somehow finished the scene, and despite the pain managed to return to sing the final section. A post-performance shot of morphine got her through the applause, given by an audience largely unaware that anything had gone wrong. It was her last performance. On October 8 that year she died.
Much that was central to Ferrier's repertoire has been preserved – through luck as much as judgement. Sadly, though, some of her greatest achievements are recorded only in the critics' superlatives. There is little record of her rapport with Barbirolli, as their respective labels would not allow one to record for the other. A recently released off-air recording of a 1952 performance of Das Lied with Richard Lewis and the Hallé (on APR) suggests their friendship produced performances of openness and trust. There is also a recording of them performing Chausson's Poème de l'amour et de la mer, from 1951. There is no complete Messiah, a work she adored – she had been promised a recording from Decca upon joining the label, but when it finally made one in the autumn of 1953 her illness was far too advanced, and Norma Procter sang the alto part. Her Angel from The Dream of Gerontius is also lost to posterity, aside from two arias from her very first test session of 1944. She also sang a certain amount of contemporary music, little of which has reached us.
But perhaps a greater loss is that there is no visual record of her much-eulogised platform presence. All we have is a six-minute film of her performing at an after-show party (a sound recording from the same party is not synchronised) and a 12-second Dutch newsreel of her arriving at Schiphol airport.
Alan Blyth, who heard Ferrier on several occasions, says of her recordings: 'the sound on its own gives a listener today only about a quarter of the impression that it did when you could see as well as hear her.' Recalling a performance in the Royal Albert Hall of the St Matthew Passion, he says 'I was simply bowled over by the sound of the voice, and the actual radiance of her presence – everybody uses that word, but it's very true. And the way she was able to communicate directly with her audience'.
It is this power of engagement with both music and listener, which on even the poorest quality recordings cuts through the crackle and hiss, that makes Ferrier's voice so admired 50 years after her death.