About this Recording
8.111009 - BRAHMS: Alto Rhapsody / SCHUMANN: Frauenliebe und leben (Ferrier) (1947-1950)

Great Singers: Kathleen Ferrier: Works by Brahms and Schumann

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 22nd 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 J.E. 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 28th 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 9th 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.

Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben, a passionate cycle of eight songs, tell of a woman’s love, marriage, motherhood and finally bereavement. Written in July 1840 at a time when Schumann and his wife-to-be Clara Wieck were fighting her father in the court over their right to marry, the songs marked a change in the composer’s style and intensity. In choosing a text by Adalbert von Chamisso (1781-1838), Schumann was able to offer music which matched the poems almost perfectly. In the first song the woman is dazzled by her man; in the second he is seen as a remote star; in the third the woman is disbelieving of herself as the chosen person; in the fourth she realises the significance of the ring as having given herself; in the fifth the sisters prepare her; in the sixth her pregnancy is announced; in the seventh her child is announced; in the final song there is the pain of bereavement and a mystical restoration of her virginity. The cycle is an impassioned deeply felt outpouring of Schumann’s love for Clara. Kathleen Ferrier first sang the work in German in November 1943 but the 1950 commercial recording, although finely sung and rich in tonal allure, does lack some feeling of spontaneity and imagination, brought about possibly by the constraints of the studio.

For the Rhapsody for alto solo, male voices in four parts and orchestra, Brahms chose a fragment of Goethe’s Harzreise in Winter. It tells of a wayward soul who has become lost, miserable and gripped with hatred. The opening sombre mood, cast in a minor key, eventually gives away to a warmer and more animated mood with the entry of the male voice, concluding in a solemn and gentle manner. Composed in 1869, the première took place in the German town of Jena in March the following year. This is the earliest of the Ferrier recordings included here, made direct to wax, and memorable indeed is her realisation of the Brahms Alto Rhapsody, a work which brings out the beauty of her voice and poignancy of her interpretation. When interviewed by The Gramophone magazine in 1951, Ferrier remarked that making recordings was “the most difficult thing under the sun …. I always wish I could have done it once more. Perhaps the best record I have made is the Brahms Alto Rhapsody ”, a comment made, it should be noted, a year before she recorded Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in Vienna.

In Botschaft, the first of Five Songs written in 1868, Brahms displays his genius in being able to compose a folk-song setting in his own style. In contrast in Sapphische Ode, the fourth of Five Songs for deep voice and written in 1884, the composer compares the feeling and dew and tears, cleverly employing the use of variation form.

The first of the Songs for alto voice, viola and piano was written in 1864 but revised twenty years later, with a second song added. The first is a magical setting evoking the golden evening sunset and the desire for sleep. The opening viola theme seems to presage a sonata movement but when the voice enters, the obbligato writing is cast as a counter theme. The opening melody to the second song is a setting of the old German Christmas song “Josef, lieber Josef mein”.

By the time Brahms wrote his Vier ernste Gesänge he was 63, with just a year of life left. Composed in May 1896, they are thought to have been a birthday present for himself. These songs show the composer recognising the transience of life, an acceptance of death and the affirmation of life and goodness despite so much that appears to deny them. The biblical texts used are those translated by Martin Luther and are taken from the Book of Ecclesiastes with the last of the Epistles to the Corinthians. The first song, translated as “One thing befalleth the beasts and sons of men”, is black in its pessimism on the subject of death and the vanity of all things. A similarly dark mood pervades the second song, “So I returned and did consider all the oppressions done beneath the sun”, in that there is in no comforter, no God and that the unborn are most fortunate, preferable to death, even better than the living and oppressed. The third, “O death, how bitter thou art”, is slightly warmer in mood with its welcoming of death, while the fourth, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of the angels”, reflects the teaching of St Paul on the greatest of human values, love. The cycle concludes with the words: “Now abideth faith, hope and love, these three: but the greatest of them all is love”. These most poignant and memorable settings are finely realised by Kathleen Ferrier in a particularly fine interpretation. She herself would die only three years after making this recording.

As a youngster I heard Kathleen Ferrier ‘live’ in works by Bach, Elgar, Handel and in recital as well as in rehearsals. Even after fifty years I can still recall the occasions vividly. Furthermore my father, the bass Norman Walker (1907-1963), a fellow Lancastrian, sang with her on many occasions during her career.

Malcolm Walker

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