Kathleen Ferrier: In Celebration of Bach
In June 1950 Kathleen Ferrier made her Viennese debut in a series of concerts at the Musikverein as part of an international festival to mark the bicentenary of Bach’s birth. Already familiar to Austrian audiences (she made her Salzburg debut the year before), she took part in performances of the St Matthew Passion and B minor Mass, both with Karajan, and the Magnificat, originally scheduled to be conducted by Klemperer, though his withdrawal due to illness led to his replacement by the altogether lesser-known Volkmar Andreae. Broadcast by Austrian Radio, the Passion and Mass have been readily available on several labels over the years. The Magnificat, however, remained elusive until a single copy, apparently on vinyl, was offered for sale on an internet auction site last year. Thanks to Somm, we now have the performance on CD, though the booklet notes give scant information as to the recording’s provenance and we still know less about its history than we would wish.
It goes without saying that it is an important addition to Ferrier’s discography, and she is indeed marvellous in it, singing ‘Esurientes implevit bonis’ with that unique, indescribable tone and expressive sincerity that characterises her finest work. She also, one notices, exercises a steadying effect on some of her colleagues. First soprano Friedl Riegler sounds tentative in ‘Et exsultavit’, while the tenor Hugo Meyer-Welfing makes heavy weather of ‘Deposuit potentes’: their uncertainties seemingly vanish, however, in their ensembles with Ferrier. Elsewhere you have to make allowances. This is grand-manner Bach on a scale that many would consider indefensible today, though Andreae conducts with great élan and energy. Playing and choral singing are both enthusiastic if heavyweight, but the boxy sound blurs too much detail and distorts at the climaxes. Irmgard Seefried, singing second soprano, is, as one might expect, glorious. Otto Edelmann, however, best known as Ochs in Karajan’s EMI Rosenkavalier, is miscast here, gritty and unappealing. There’s a lot of coughing and platform movement, and someone – Andreae, one assumes – can be heard violently stamping their feet at the start of ‘Omnes generationes’.
Its companion pieces are the English-language recordings of Cantatas Nos 11 (the Ascension Oratorio) and 67 that Ferrier made with Reginald Jacques, released by Decca also in June 1950, and both handsomely remastered, with only the occasional moment of surface hiss reminding us of their age. It’s easy to forget how pioneering they were in their day: they were among the first recordings of any of the choral cantatas to be made; and Jacques’s insistence on smallish forces and absolute clarity of texture and polyphony was deemed both novel and controversial at the time. Seventy years on the sharply focused playing and choral singing still impress, though some might find Jacques’s conducting a fraction solemn nowadays. Ferrier has only two brief passages of recitative in No 67, where the tenor and bass arias are dispatched with considerable eloquence by William Herbert and William Parsons respectively. She comes into her own, though, in No 11, where she’s truly magnificent: her central aria, imploring the risen Christ to ‘tarry yet’ on earth, remains one of the most beautiful things she ever committed to disc.