By Clare Campbell from Gramophone, February 1956
I first heard Kathleen Ferrier from a choir-stall in Westminster Abbey in 1943. My memories of her work with the Bach Choir over the next ten years, together with a feeling that her achievements in the earlier half of her career are not always valued at their true worth by critics and record collectors, must be my excuse for adding to what has been written about her in these columns.
The 1943 concert was the Messiah which virtually opened her London career. She gave a subdued performance on that occasion, singing a little as though she were accompanying the orchestra rather than they her! No doubt she was nervous, though she did not betray the fact; she seemed, rather, all that the Scotch mean by 'douce' both in voice and manner. It was not till the following year, when the Choir repeated its Abbey Messiah, that I was thrilled by her. She had almost a choirboy sweetness of tone and directness of delivery at that time, which can be recaptured in places from her Pergolesi Stabat mater records. With all her early records, it is better to endure the occasional roughnesses of surface than to manipulate a merely ladylike sound out of them which is quite unlike the power and conviction of her actual performances. She had, as Neville Cardus has pointed out, a certain masculinity of style, particularly in the years before she had extended her repertoire widely into romantic music; but for some schools of thought this is the ideal way to sing Bach and Handel.
In fact the emphasis laid on her great debt to Dr Bruno Walter should not be allowed to obscure how much she had achieved before she met him. I remember her 1945/6/7 performances of the St Matthew Passion as the highlights of her work with the Bach Choir. It is commonly said that her interpretative powers increased after that time. But tastes differ as to how much 'interpretation', in the sense of conscious underlining of detailed effects within the whole, Bach and Handel need or can do with. Personally I prefer the searching simplicity of her version of 'Grief for sin' on Decca AK2005 to the technically superior later recording of it on Decca LXT2757. One of her lovely early records is Handers 'Come to me soothing sleep' on Columbia DX1194, which also forms part of the Columbia EP disc, SED5526 (though it has a few jarring high notes). Here again some tastes might want more conscious expressionism, more lingering on the meaning of the words such as she affords in her late recording of 'He was despised'. But for others, words which are almost in the actor's sense 'thrown away' can be more moving, because the emotion is implicit instead of explicit. In her singing of the phrase 'dreams that my sorrow may assuage' enunciation and legato tone are so perfectly blended that the dividing line between words and music vanishes and each becomes the other.
Interpretation apart, the physical quality of her voice seemed to become better suited to the more romantic composers in the last years of her career – to which period also the perfection of her own and Decca's recording technique belongs. Hence the shortened perspective which makes her acclaimed at least in certain musical circles as above all a Mahler singer. Surely this is an injustice to her memory. For Mahler with all his command of pathos is nevertheless not a major composer, whereas the St Matthew Passion is widely agreed to be one of the world's greatest musical creations. Kathleen herself once said to a leading music critic, 'You've never heard me sing if you haven't heard me in Bach'.
To reconstruct the joy of her early performances one needs to combine in imagination effects from different records; for instance, in 'Have mercy, Lord, on me' one must add the beauty of tone from the very early Decca K1465 (reissued as the 45 rpm disc 71037) to the greater rhythmic and emotional intensity of the performances under Dr Jacques (Decca AK2012 and K1676). These two again have different merits, and only the latter gives the heart-searching crescendo on the word 'Lord' at the beginning, which one never knew her to miss out in an actual performance. By an unlucky coincidence the St Matthew records were made in the summer of 1947 in the very same week that she was singing in Orpheus at Glyndebourne. Hence her voice showed some signs of fatigue and anxiety in the long recording sessions, and I remember her seeming to wage a veritable war against the microphone – although during the lunch intervals she was sufficiently relaxed to be seen squirting cherry stones at the tenor soloist There are many fine things in her singing in this set, for example the moving expressiveness of the recitative 'O gracious God, behold the Saviour standeth bound' (Decca AK2017). But elsewhere one does miss some of her familiar beauties of phrasing. Which is only to say that the value of records is greater as a reminder of live performances than as a substitute for them. The Albert Hall used to suit her voice exceptionally well, never putting an 'edge' on the tone in the way that small halls or recording studios can do. She could fill it effortlessly in forte passages; and she was a lovely singer to sit behind among choir or orchestra, since one had the curious impression that she sang through the back of her head as much as through the front of it – that where most singers are like a torch beam focussed narrowly on the audience she was like a globe of light radiating in all directions.
One gains from being present at recording sessions some idea of the patience and emotional self-discipline which are required of the front-rank executant. There are endless hitches and repeats; one of Kathleen's most exacting St Matthew arias had to be done four times running. How tired she would look at times while waiting for that ominous repeat signal – and yet as soon as she reached the microphone, the song she was about to sing was once again the most important thing in the world. I have never felt from any performer a greater sense of concentration, as though the entire resources of her personality were being lavished upon what she was doing. The result was that the song somehow came across as a whole, with each part perfectly phrased and proportioned to the architecture of the rest. This is the essence of pure classical style, which I believe she realised most fully in her early work with Dr Jacques; and while there are other styles and other worlds of feeling, it may have answered to something in her own nature: for her friend Bernie Hammond said of her attitude to her illness 'she had a wonderful sense of proportion'.
That there was a profound correspondence between her singing and her personality has of course been felt by many of those who have written about her. There are signs that this has increased the difficulty of assessing her achievement. Because of the great demonstration of public feeling since she died, I have sometimes heard it speculated that she was admired more as a person than as a musician. Yet when her greatness as a person is considered it seems inseparable from the message which she conveyed in her work. Everywhere she went and of all that she sang – as Gerontius's consoler in face of death, as Orpheus pleading his way with music past the Furies into the Blessed Isles – people said the same thing: this girl is sincere, she seems to mean it from her heart. She seems to be burning to tell us that the things she cares for are the best things in creation, stronger and more lasting than anything that can lay siege to them, stronger than ugliness or pain or death. And so long as they listened, people believed that it was true; and then perhaps they came away and said to themselves: 'But after all, it's music'. And so in the end she had to show by the courage of her life that it wasn't 'only music': that the vision of greatness on which artistic experience opens out is a reality and not an illusion. How easy it might have been, but for the last chapter of the story, to think of her just as 'lucky Kath', the girl born with a wonderful talent to whom success came with both hands full. But in the end she proved what in hearing her sing one had felt ready to believe, and served not so much herself as all her fellow artists in reminding us that people can only do anything with greatness who are themselves great.