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CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Kathleen Ferrier

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews the centenary of a great singer.


Kathleen Ferrier, a film by Diane Perelsztejn, with English narration by Charlotte Rampling and French narration by Marthe Keller (DVD).  ATTR. J.S. BACH: Vergiss mein nicht, BWV 505; Ach, dass nicht de letze Stunde, BWV 439 and Bist du bei mir, BWV 508.  BRAHMS: Four Serious Songs (Vier ernste Gesänge), op. 121 (sung in English). Kathleen Ferrier, contralto; with John Newmark. Piano. (Recorded in concert at Town Hall, New York City, 8 January 1950.)  GLUCK: Orfeo ed Euridice: six selections (in Italian). Ferrier, contralto; with Ann Ayars and Ethel Barrymore Colt (aka Louisa Kinlock), sopranos; The Westminster Choir (prepared by John Finley Williamson) and The Little Orchestra Society of New York conducted by Thomas K. Scherman. (CD) (Recorded in concert at Town Hall, 17 March 1950). Decca 074 3471.

The documentary of Kathleen Ferrier’s life and art is, to say the very least, moving.  Every singer has his or her own distinctive sound, and it may be said that there is no such thing as a typical soprano, alto, countertenor, tenor or bass voice.  This seems to be particularly the case with contraltos—as Nathalie Stutzmann, who is one herself, comments in the film, the contralto voice seems to be concentrated heavily on chest tone. (Even so, any contralto worth her salt also has an upper register of great beauty—that can be said of Ferrier; it could be said of Marian Anderson, who could sound like a female baritone when she wanted to but, in her prime, had a wonderful bell-like upper register—as do all the best contraltos).  Ferrier was a natural musician, whose girlhood included piano lessons and almost certainly some training in the rudiments of singing.  She wasn’t recognized as a standout singer early in life, however.  When, as a young girl, she wanted to join a choir, the director accepted her on condition that she sing sotto voce.  And then she seemed to move right into the rut of the conventional, utterly conformist Lancashire life of working as a telephone switchboard operator and getting what music and poetry she could in her off-hours.  In her early twenties, she got married.  It was her husband, Albert Wilson, who dared her to enter a singing contest.  The joke was on him: she won. (She also took top honors in a piano competition held under the same auspices and at the same time.) Her never-successful marriage to Wilson ended when Wilson, a banker, joined the Army; she had been singing for a time as Kathleen Wilson, and shortly resumed her maiden name.

That was the beginning.  Her life irrevocably altered, she found herself surrounded by people offering her engagements, mentoring and everything that goes with deciding that one really wants to be—really, is destined to be—a professional.  The baritone Roy Henderson (who appears in a film clip) took Ferrier under his wing. It was actually Ferrier who sought out Henderson, thinking that she needed more intensive professional coaching.  It was he who taught her how to characterize a song: he felt that the musicianship was all there, but not quite the interpretive finesse.  Henderson changed his mind when he had dinner with Kathleen and her sister, and discovered the young singer’s natural aptitude for comedy. 

There were other mentors, but the most significant was Bruno Walter — the man entrusted by the family of Gustav Mahler with the first performances of that composer’s ninth symphony and Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), the latter which he recorded with Ferrier, tenor Julius Patzak and the Vienna Philharmonic.  She had already performed Das Lied under Walter several times before the 1952 recording sessions — at the time of that recording, she was “already in the throes” of the last stages of metastatic breast cancer, as Walter recalled in a recorded interview a few years later.  A software device developed over the last decade or so enabling isolation of the voice from the original instrumental accompaniment has Ferrier singing Das Lied with the Ictus Ensemble, conducted by Georges-Elie Octors, at various points in the film, which performs Arnold Schoenberg’s admirable chamber version.  The oboist, who has an extended solo in Der Abschied (The Farewell), is particularly impressive.  Still, one longs for the sound of her collaboration with Bruno Walter and its indescribably authentic passion.

Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia (a work the composer custom-tailored for Ferrier’s voice) and Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice were the only operas in which Ferrier sang and acted. Ferrier, by her own admission, was less than enthusiastic about opera in general.  Her very last appearance, at the Royal Opera, was in an English-language version of Orfeo (called Orpheus), for which the conductor was Sir John Barbirolli.  It is said that Ferrier and Barbirolli, not liking the English version prepared for the production, rewrote the text themselves.  Ferrier had done a concert version of Carmen, which she was said not to have enjoyed; even so, there were also rumors that, about a year before her death, the Bayreuth Festival had been considering her for two Wagner roles. 

The audio CD accompanying the documentary DVD has Ferrier’s portion of a chamber music concert at Town Hall in New York City on january 8, 1950. There are, first, three short songs attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach (in German), including a Bist du bei mir (shown to have been not by JSB) sung with more gravitas and tenderness than anyone else ever put into it. There is a compelling account of Brahms’ Four Serious Songs, op. 121, in English—to Scriptural texts chosen by the composer.  It is a tribute to Ferrier’s supreme artistry that an audience member at that New York concert of January 1950 came up to her and asserted that the contralto was really a German, not an Englishwoman—the German diction was unusually clear, and there was a slight trace of a German accent in her English. Her pianist is the highly sympathetic John Newmark, a German émigré and a musician of unusual distinction.  The other window into the past is slightly less than half an hour of Gluck’s Orfeo (in Italian) with Ann Ayars as Euridice and Louisa Kinlock (real name: Ethel Barrymore Colt, daughter and namesake of actress Ethel Barrymore) as Amor.  This concert performance was also in Town Hall, on March 17, 1950, just two months later.  For years this recording was in the private collection of Thomas K. Scherman, the conductor for that performance. It is here available to the public for the first time.  Though this is not a staged version, one can almost see the handsome young woman as the bereaved young man with his lyre and laurel wreath, singing sweetly rather than dolefully to entice the intransigent Furies.

Decca is also bringing out a 14-CD set of Ferrier’s complete recordings for that  label (Decca 478 3589) in honor of her centenary.  Many of her recordings have actually been well within the consciousness of a good many people years after her death in the autumn of 1953 (at only forty-one, and after a career that lasted about eight years).  To find out more about the DVD/CD combination reviewed here, go to; for information on the 14-CD set, go to