About this Recording
8.111081 - FERRIER, Kathleen: Songs of the British Isles (1949-1952)

Great Singers: Kathleen Ferrier
Songs of the British Isles

The Lancashire-born contralto Kathleen Ferrier (1912- 1953) proved to be the most significant British female singer to emerge after the end of the Second World War in 1945. Her professional singing career spanned a single decade (1942-1953), but in that time she rose to international recognition in a remarkably short time. Her early death from cancer 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 her in person. It was a unique voice that transcends time. As the Daily Mail commented following her death: “The singer who stirred the world more than any other artist of her time”.

Sometimes overlooked is the fact that she did have friendly competition from a number of equally excellent fellow British contraltos of the time – Nancy Evans, Mary Jarred, Pamela Bowden, Gladys Ripley and Kathleen Joyce. So what was it about this woman from Blackburn in Lancashire that made critic Sir Neville Cardus, composer Benjamin Britten, accompanist Gerald Moore, fellow singers soprano Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Nancy Evans, and conductors Bruno Walter and Sir John Barbirolli, enthuse over her and her work? For a start Ferrier 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, with a ‘smile’ in her voice which people positively responded to. Her diction, especially when singing in the English language, was exemplary. It was also helpful that she was a highly attractive, warmhearted woman with a delightfully engaging personality, sense of humour and wit. Above all, she was a totally prepared, reliable, honest and hardworking performer in everything she undertook. It was this professionalism and reliability that conductors as diverse as Sargent, Eduard van Beinum, Barbirolli, Bruno Walter, Boyd Neel and Josef Krips respected.

Born in Higher Walton on 22nd April 1912 Kathleen Ferrier began her musical career as pianist and accompanist in the North of England, studying with Thomas Duerden. She left school at the age of fourteen to work at 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, Cumbria, 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 in Trafalgar Square 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. This led in time to her meeting the composer Benjamin Britten. Her reputation continued to grow all the time. The title rôle in Britten’s chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia was conceived with her voice in mind. She created the part at Glyndebourne on 12th July 1946 and the following year sang the title rôle of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice there. These were the sole parts she ever sang on stage, repeating the latter in Holland in 1951 and at two performances (four were originally planned) at Covent Garden in February 1953, her farewell to her profession.

In 1947 Kathleen Ferrier first sang for the conductor Bruno Walter during the opening year Edinburgh Festival in 1947. This would have a farreaching effect on her subsequent international career, for 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 on 12th January 1948. The distinguished conductor Leopold Stokowski wrote after hearing her through a broadcast of the Mahler work: “Her perfect voice was so full and beautiful, the intonation always perfect, the phrasing so elastic, and the interpretation”. The successful recital début on 29th March was such that she soon became a regular visitor to both the United States and Canada. It was during her second visit in 1949 that she met the naturalised Canadian pianist John Newmark (1904-1991) with whom she formed a happy working association, two of whose sensitive accompaniments can be found on this disc. Her European reputation also flourished with engagements in Switzerland, Milan, Paris, Salzburg, Stockholm, Oslo, 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 brought the conductor Herbert von Karajan to 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 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 before her untimely death in London on 9th October 1953.

Kathleen Ferrier’s first recordings were made for HMV in June 1944, four sides planned 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 and 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. The artist was unhappy with these, and moreover was becoming increasingly disenchanted with her producer Walter Legge, who, she thought, was trying to impose his interpretations onto her. She signed with the increasingly important Decca Record Company in 1946, with which, with one exception, she would make the remainder of all her studio recordings. It is always to be regretted that she never recorded a number of her oratorio interpretations for posterity but this was mainly owing to the state of the recording industry at the time.

Throughout her professional career Kathleen Ferrier sang songs by British composers and settings of British folk-songs in recitals and broadcasts. The inclusion of such repertoire, especially those from Northumbria, was a further way of getting an audience ‘on her side’. Her stage presence with such material further enhanced the music’s appeal. The sincerity and poise of her performance of Whittaker’s unaccompanied arrangement of Blow the wind southerly is such that it has become ‘her’ song to many. This and The Keel Row were two recordings that Ferrier was especially pleased with, as she later revealed in an interview in the British magazine The Gramophone in March 1951.

The programme here includes seven songs recorded in 1949, two the following year, twelve in December 1951, all at Decca Studios in Broadhurst Gardens, West Hampstead, a building which is now the rehearsal studios of English National Opera in London. The balance come from a ‘live’ BBC broadcast recital on 5th June 1952, transmitted between 7.30 and 8pm that evening.

The composer, conductor, organist and scholar William Gillies Whittaker (1876-1944) studied at Durham University, later becoming the first Gardiner Professor of Music at Glasgow University, followed by Principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music. He also edited music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in addition to composing music for all classical genres. He made arrangements of North Country folk melodies. Born in Belfast, Herbert Hughes (1882-1937) studied at the Royal College of Music in London with Sir Walter Parratt and Charles Wood. In 1904 he helped found the Irish Folksong Society, and in time published four volumes of Irish Country Songs, Old Irish Melodies and Historical Songs and Ballads. His own compositions included incidental music, chamber pieces, piano and choral works. He was also Music Critic of The Daily Telegraph between 1911 and 1932. Roger Quilter (1877-1953) enjoyed a distinguished career as a song composer for many years, following his studies in Frankfurt. He also wrote a light opera, incidental music and a small amount of chamber music. He compiled The Arnold Book of Old Songs (published in 1947) from which Kathleen Ferrier sings two items. Peter Warlock (1894-1930) is remembered as one of the finest of English song writers, with an output that included the haunting cycle The Curlew to words by W. B. Yeats. He also edited a considerable amount of earlier music for contemporary performance. Sir Hugh Roberton (1974-1952) founded the Glasgow Orpheus Choir in 1901 and for its fifty years of existence was its sole conductor. His arrangements include Crimond (Psalm 23) and All in an April evening. Cecil J. Sharp (1859-1924) was in the forefront on the collecting of English folk songs in the early twentieth century. His invaluable contribution was recognised by Cecil Sharp House in London, now the headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Maurice Jacobson (1896-1976) studied at the Royal College of Music with Stanford and Gustav Holst. In 1923 he joined the music publishers Curwen and Son, becoming Chairman in 1946. In addition to his arrangements he also wrote two cantatas and a Symphonic Suite for Strings.

Finally a personal note. As a boy I heard Kathleen Ferrier ‘live’ on several occasions and even after fifty years I can still recall the vivid quality of her voice. Furthermore my father, the bass Norman Walker (1907- 1963), a fellow Lancastrian, sang with her on many occasions during her all too short career.

Malcolm Walker

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