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Kathleen Ferrier was the most significant British singer to emerge following the end of the Second World War in 1945. Although her professional singing career spanned only a single decade (1942–1953) she achieved international recognition in a remarkably short time. Then, again, her tragically early death at the age of 41, far from allowing her name and reputation to disappear with time, has increased her reputation through her recordings for succeeding generations. Her memory also remains undimmed for those who heard in the flesh. As the Daily Mail commented following her death, she was “The singer who stirred the world more than any other artist of her time”.

What was it about this woman from Lancashire that made critic Sir Neville Cardus, composer Benjamin Britten, accompanist Gerald Moore, fellow singers soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and contralto Nancy Evans, and conductors Bruno Walter and Sir John Barbirolli, enthuse over her and her work? For a start it must have been Ferrier’s voice: she had a real contralto voice of rare tonal quality and warmth. The voice was not a ‘long’ one but was splendidly moulded to avoid obvious breaks between registers. She was also an extremely fine musician (in addition to being a fine pianist) and a memorable interpreter who was able to communicate with her audience in a manner which is rare. She also had a ‘smile’ in her voice to which people positively responded. Her diction, especially when singing in the English language, was exemplary. It was also helpful that she was a highly attractive woman with a delightfully engaging personality and wit, but above all she was a totally prepared, reliable, honest and hard-working performer in everything she undertook.

Born in Higher Walton on 22 April 1912 Kathleen Ferrier began her musical career as pianist and accompanist in the North of England. She left school at the age of fourteen to begin work in the local Telephone Exchange. In 1930 she became a telephone switchboard operator, a job she worked at for a number of years. That same year she won first prize and a gold medal for her piano playing at the Liverpool Festival. In 1937 she entered a singing competition in Carlisle, winning the Rose Bowl. She first studied with Dr JE Hutchinson in Carlisle and later in London with the English baritone Roy Henderson (1899–2000). Her London début was at one of Dame Myra Hess’s lunchtime concerts at the National Gallery on 28 December 1942. Her first major London engagement was in Handel’s Messiah in Westminster Abbey where Peter Pears was one of her fellow soloists. Thereafter her reputation continued to grow all the time. She created the title-rôle of Britten’s chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia at Glyndebourne in July 1946 and the following year sang the title-rôle of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice there. These were the only two stage rôles she ever sang, repeating the latter in Holland in 1949 and 1951, in a concert performance in New York in 1949, and at two performances at Covent Garden in February 1953, her farewell to her profession.

In 1947 she first sang for the conductor Bruno Walter during the opening year of the Edinburgh Festival. This would have a far-reaching effect on her subsequent international career, for in January 1948 she set off for an American tour where she sang three performances of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde under Walter in New York. The distinguished conductor Leopold Stokowski wrote after hearing her in a broadcast of the Mahler work: “Her perfect voice was so full and beautiful, the intonation always perfect, the phrasing so elastic, the interpretation so eloquent”. Her success in the United States and Canada was such that she soon became a regular visitor to these countries in the concert hall. It was during her second visit in 1949 that she met the Canadian pianist John Newmark with whom she formed a happy working association, characterized by his sensitive accompaniments of the Schumann work included here. Her European reputation also flourished with engagements in Switzerland, Milan, Paris, Florence and Turin, culminating in memorable performances of Bach’s Mass in B minor in Vienna in 1950, when her singing is said to have had the conductor Herbert von Karajan in tears. In 1952 she was asked by the Bayreuth Festival authorities to sing Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde under Karajan but she declined. The first symptoms of the illness from which she would die had already appeared but she was able to complete a historic and unforgettable recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in Vienna under Walter in May 1952 (Naxos 8.110871). She was created a CBE and awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society during the year of her death from cancer. She died in London on 9 October 1953.

Kathleen Ferrier’s first recordings were made for HMV in June 1944, four sides as a commercial test, to evaluate her suitability for a planned recording of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius in April 1945. She was not chosen but by some miracle the recordings survived unknown until their release in 1978. Her first published records were for EMI’s Columbia label, made with the accompanist Gerald Moore. She was unhappy with these, and moreover was becoming increasingly disenchanted with her producer Walter Legge, who, she thought, tried to impose his interpretations onto her. She signed with the increasingly important Decca Record company in 1946, with whom, with one exception, she would make the remainder of all her studio recordings.

Albums featuring this artist are available for download from ClassicsOnline.com
Role: Classical Artist 
Album Title
Catalogue No  Work Category 
A TO Z OF SINGERS Naxos Educational
BACH, J.S.: Ascension Oratorio, BWV 11 / Arias / HANDEL G.F.: Arias (Ferrier) (1949, 1952) Naxos Historical
Choral - Sacred, Vocal, Choral - Sacred, Vocal, Choral - Sacred, Vocal
BACH, J.S.: Mass in B Minor, BWV 232 (Schwarzkopf, Gedda, Karajan) (1952-1953) Naxos Historical
Choral - Sacred
BACH, J.S.: St. Matthew Passion (Sung in English) / Halt im Gedachtnis Jesum Christ (Sung in English) (Ferrier) (1947-1949) Naxos Historical
Choral - Sacred
BRAHMS: Alto Rhapsody / SCHUMANN: Frauenliebe und leben (Ferrier) (1947-1950) Naxos Historical
Vocal, Choral - Secular
FERRIER, Kathleen: Songs of the British Isles (1949-1952) Naxos Historical
GREAT SINGERS (1904-1952) Naxos Historical
MAHLER: Kindertotenlieder / Symphony No. 4 (Ferrier) (1945, 1949) Naxos Historical
Orchestral, Vocal
MAHLER: Lied von der Erde (Das) / Ruckert-Lieder (Ferrier) (1952) Naxos Historical
Vocal Recital: Ferrier, Kathleen - BACH, J.S. / HANDEL, G.F. / GLUCK, C.W. / MENDELSSOHN, Felix / SCHUBERT, F. (Arias and Songs) (1946-1950) Naxos Historical
Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal

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8:08:02 PM, 3 August 2015
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