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Kathleen Ferrier: A Film by Diane Perelsztejn
10 Nov 2012

Kathleen Ferrier: A Film by Diane Perelsztejn

Contraltos rarely achieve the acclaim and renown of sopranos. Assigned few leading roles in opera, they are condemned to playing the villain or the grandmother, or to stealing the castrati’s trousers in en travesti roles.

Kathleen Ferrier: A Film by Diane Perelsztejn

A review by Claire Seymour

Decca 0440 074 3479 6 [CD & DVD]

$23.99  Click to buy

As Richard Boldrey puts it, in Guide to Operatic Roles and Arias (1994), they are the “witches, bitches, or britches”. But, even those — Nancy Evans, Edith Coates — who have reached a position of considerable prominence and approbation, have seldom equalled Kathleen Ferrier’s iconic status, or inspired the enduring devotion aroused in her admirers — feats made more astonishing in the light of the brevity of her life, just 41 years, and singing career, a mere 10.

Born and brought up in a terrace house in Blackburn, Lancashire, Ferrier was intelligent, witty and noted for her sharp humour and sense of fun. She left school at 14 and began working as a telephone operator, while continuing to develop her musical talents through piano and singing lessons. Marriage in 1935 allowed her to focus more seriously on her music and, following early successes — in the 1937 Carlisle Festival (at both piano and voice) — she reached the heights of her profession at astonishing speed. A relentless touring and performance schedule took her to the world’s finest stages; her performances of Bach, Brahms and particularly Mahler, became legendary, and a list of the maestri with whom she worked reads like a roll call of twentieth-century conducting honour: Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Adrian Boult, Walter Goehr, Reginald Goodall, Charles Groves, Herbert von Karajan, Erich Kleiber, Otto Klemperer, Clemens Krauss, Rafael Kubelik, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Walter Susskind and George Szell, to name but a few.

This DVD, narrated by Charlotte Rampling, moves swiftly through the early years and first London successes, conveying the depth and breadth of impact that Ferrier achieved as she established herself as a striking contralto, with a warm, vibrant tone and extensive range. She attracted the attention of Sir Malcolm Sargeant and John Tillet — the latter immediately put her on his agencies books — but not of Lennox Berkley, then head of BBC music programming, who professed himself unimpressed by 30-year-old singer’s first London performance!

Anxious and disappointed, Ferrier began studying with baritone Roy Henderson, one of many commentators on this film, who notes that despite her remarkable musicianship — she could learn even the most difficult music with ease — Ferrier was surprisingly timid about expressing emotions. However, by the time of her 1947 Edinburgh Festival appearance with Bruno Walter, performing Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, her performances were characterised by expressive freedom and openness. Much time is devoted to this landmark performance, and Perelsztejn fully communicates the unrivalled significance of Ferrier’s relationship with Walter to her professional, musical and personal development. Ferrier remarked that performing with Walter was “truly memorable, always exciting and sometimes almost unbearably moving”.

We follow the highpoints of Ferrier’s career — The Rape of Lucretia at Glyndebourne in 1946, her 1948 Carnegie Hall debut, experienced by millions of American radio listeners, Das Lied in Salzburg in 1949 broadcast throughout Europe, recitals accompanied by Walter in New York and London, a performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass in 1950, with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, which is said to have moved conductor Herbert von Karajan to tears. Historic recordings of studio and live performances are illustrated by photographs of Ferrier rehearsing, in performance, relaxing with her fellow musicians; perhaps the ever-changing shots and film footage of places and objects — wartime London, trains and boats, an array of 1940s radio sets and the Cumbrian countryside — are a little wearying after a time, but they do give a sense of time and place, as well as the rollercoaster intensity of Ferrier’s career. My only real misgiving concerned the need to intercut stills of Ferrier performing Das Lied with film of the contemporary ensemble, Ictus, rehearsing the work before a projected image of the singer.

As well as extracts from her own diaries, and recorded comments made by Ferrier, there are contributions from a host of writers who have made Ferrier their subject: Ian Jack, author of Klever Kaff, Boris Terk (A Voice is a Person), biographer Maurice Leonard (The Life of Kathleen Ferrier), and the editor of her letters and diaries, Christopher Fifield. In addition, voices from the past explain Ferrier’s unrivalled magnetism: her sister Winifred (who recalls Ferrier’s belief that to convey the true meaning of a song one had to “paint the words”), assistant Bernie Hammond, and musicians and writers such as Michael Kennedy (biographer of Sir John Barbirolli, who conducted of Ferrier’s last stage performance), and the current director of the Edinburgh Festival, Jonathan Mills, all add to a lively narrative which conveys the warmth and vivaciousness of Ferrier’s character. Indeed, Jack notes that her beer drinking, cigarette smoking and penchant for dirty jokes would have been considered very outré and mannish!

In interview, Benjamin Britten, who was in the audience for Ferrier’s performance of the Messiah at Westminster Cathedral in 1943, and who went on to create many roles for Ferrier, observes simply that, “Here was a voice that could sing this extremely awkward music without any effort”.

The final stages of the film deal with Ferrier’s personal relationships, and we learn about her relationship with Rick Davies — the significance of which has not been previously well known due to the media’s respect for the singer’s privacy and Winifred restricting access to the diaries — and with her father. Her fatal illness is sensitively depicted, revealing the humour and courage (she continued to perform despite the pain caused by her breast cancer) with which she bore discomfort and adversity.

Contralto Natalie Stutzmann insightfully analyses the strengths and appeal of Ferrier’s voice, remarking its ambiguous combination of “the colour of the chest voice usually found in the male voice with the clarity of the female voice”, and the beauty and length of her breath. But, whatever her technical strengths, it was the way her relaxed, earthy contralto communication so naturally that struck her devotees, for whom she was the ‘girl-next-door’, bringing classical music to an entirely new audience.

Charlotte Rampling’s narration is sometimes given to hyperbole: “when she died in 1953 she was the most beloved woman in Britain.” Considering the effect of Ferrier’s performances of Handel, she asks, “Had audiences heard in her voice a kind of messiah?” But, perhaps such eulogies are deserved, given that Bruno Walter reputedly declared that the two greatest musical experience of his life were meeting Kathleen Ferrier and Gustav Mahler, “in that order”.

Accompanying the DVD is a companion CD featuring 40 minutes of unreleased live recordings. During a third tour of North American which commenced in December 1949, Ferrier performed at the Town Hall, New York, on Sunday 8 January 1950: her contributions to the recital were three pieces attributed to Bach and Brahms’ Four Serious Songs, and these works are included here.

Of the Bach songs, which have previously been recorded by Decca, the most well-known is ‘Bist du bei mir’, which together with the rarer ‘Vergiß mein nicht’ and ‘Ach, daß nicht die letzte Stunde’ reveals the absolute purity of Ferrier’s tone and the consummate breath control which enables her to adopt daringly slow tempi, allowing the spiritual core of the music to be deeply felt.

Given that the Brahms songs were recorded live at that 1950 New York concert, the quality of the sound is excellent: clear and full. ‘One thing that befalleth the beasts and the sons of men’ is tailor-made for Ferrier’s earthy, burnished lower register, but it is the contrast between this and the lighter, brighter top which brings vividness to the song. The broad-breathed phrases of ‘So I returned and did consider’ have a lyrical fluency, and one senses the drama of Ferrier’s live performance, with individual words given a surge of energy and brightness. ‘O death, how bitter art thou’ possesses a rhetorical splendour. In both Bach and Brahms, Ferrier is accompanied by pianist John Newmark.

The final items are from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, a poignant inclusion for it was during a performance of this opera in 1953, with Sir John Barbirolli, that Ferrier suffered a fractured femur, a sign that the breast cancer for which she had been treated had attacked her bones; she was not to perform again. This is also a live recording from the 1950 tour, which has since languished in the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound in the New York Public Library. Perhaps one is misguided to detect an underlying pathos and melancholy in Ferrier’s voice, but the temptation is strong. Ferrier is joined by Ann Ayars as Euridice, The Westminster Choir (conducted by John Finley Williams) and a rather dry-sounding Little Orchestra Society (conductor, Thomas K. Scherman).

This Decca pair contain old and new, familiar and rare. The much-feted career highlights and the newly released recordings, images and films will be equally enjoyed by Ferrier aficionados and new disciples alike.

Claire Seymour

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