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 Recording of the Week  Kathleen Ferrier

One of my all-time heroines would have been 100 years old yesterday, were it not for her untimely death at the age of just 41 – and what a redoubtable centenarian ‘Klever Kaff’ (as the great Lancashire-born contralto ironically styled herself) would surely have been! To mark the anniversary, we have commemorative boxed sets from Decca (the label with which she was most closely associated) and from EMI, where she made some notable early recordings and returned for her iconic 1949 account of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder.

Kathleen Ferrier
Kathleen Ferrier

When we first cracked the boxes open, there was much debate in the Presto office about exactly what it is makes the voice so immediately recognisable and, to modern ears, so quaintly antediluvian – the first suggestion was the simple fact of being a bona fide contralto rather than a mezzo. Certainly the true contralto voice is a rarity, perhaps even more so now than in Ferrier’s day, but I’d argue that reports of its death have been exaggerated: Sonia Prina, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Nathalie Stutzmann and Ewa Podles are just a few of the singers currently flying the flag for the lower-voiced ladies.

But Ferrier’s serene, ‘eternal feminine’ tone quality has little in common with the current crop. Unlike many modern contraltos, there’s nothing androgynous or butch about her timbre (even in the trouser-role of Orfeo she exudes mellow womanliness), nor does she display the matriarchal chutzpah of Podles or the bosomy sensuality of Lemieux (Britten wrote The Rape of Lucretia for her because, as he charmingly phrased it, he ‘couldn’t have a sexy dame’ in the title role!). There’s also the speed of vibrato, which is far faster and more constant than one usually hears today, and the consistent beauty of tone: Ferrier never went in for the extremes of colour, dramatic gear shifts or even flirtations with tonal ugliness that many modern singers of all voice types employ, yet somehow her unselfconscious immersion in text and music made every performance unique and involving.

A late bloomer who only sang professionally for just over a decade, it’s astonishing that Ferrier managed to commit such a range of repertoire to disc, but also impossible not to pine for what might have been. Many have lamented that she did not live to take up the offer to sing Erda and Brangaene at Bayreuth, but my big regret is that this pint-swigging, earthy northern lass was never persuaded to take on Mistress Quickly in Falstaff.

Ferrier famously disliked opera (Orfeo and Lucretia were her only two stage roles), lamenting that she felt awkward on stage, but the dramatic instinct that blazes forth from every bar of her Orfeo (Che faro may be the plum, but listen to the lightening changes of mood and intention in those recitatives!) suggests that the right director could have overcome her reluctance. It’s also a huge pity that she didn’t survive to see the Handel revival: as was the fashion at the time, the Handel arias here are English-language versions with piano in parlour-song tradition, but she would surely have made a noble, plangent Cornelia in Giulio Cesare and a wonderfully stoic Irene in Theodora.

Both boxes feature re-issues of classic recordings, with a few extras and new discoveries. EMI offer previously-unreleased takes of Kindertotenlieder, whilst Decca include the DVD documentary ‘An Ordinary Diva’ (sound throughout is much improved thanks to new re-masterings, and there are lovely individual sleeves with different photos of ‘Kaff’ on each cover).

The myriad highlights are, I’m sure, already familiar and much-cherished by many readers. Aside from the Orfeo, I was overwhelmed by the simple sincerity of the Matthew Passion arias, the shy, confiding eroticism of Frauenliebe, and of course the two great Mahler cycles. The searing performance of the final two Rückert songs, moving from fear to acceptance of death, is almost unbearably poignant, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I still can’t make it through with dry eyes.

Kathleen Ferrier: The Complete EMI Recordings

Kathleen Ferrier (contralto)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Kathleen Ferrier: The Complete Decca Recordings

Kathleen Ferrier (contralto)

Available Format: CD