The life of English contralto Kathleen Ferrier was tragically short. Born on April 22, 1912, she did not begin to study singing seriously until 1937. It was not long before she began to build her reputation. Her appearances included both the Glyndebourne Festival and the Edinburgh Festival; and her associations included composer Benjamin Britten, conductor Bruno Walter, and pianist Gerald Moore. However, at the height of her powers in March of 1951, she was diagnosed with breast cancer; and she died on October 8, 1953.
Her recording legacy was modest, but it included major sessions with both Decca and EMI. Those who have accorded her cult status, also hold in high regard a Gala CD entitled Songs My Father Taught Me, which includes a track of an unabashedly tipsy Ferrier accompanying herself at the piano at a party in New York in 1949. Both Decca and EMI were already apotheosizing her while she was alive; and there is something comforting in listening to this all-too-human side of her character, even if it comes from a home tape recorder operated by an amateur.
This coming Friday SOMM Recordings will release Kathleen Ferrier remembered. This is a single CD with 26 tracks, nineteen of which were previously unpublished. As usual, Amazon.com has already created a Web page for this release and is taking pre-orders:
All of the recordings appear to have been made for broadcasting purposes primarily, if not entirely, by the BBC. The recordings were made between 1947 and 1952, the latest at the end of September in 1952. However, those should not be taken as “final” recordings, since Ferrier was still at work in 1953.
The booklet accompanying this new recording concludes with a “Technical Note” by Ted Kendall, explaining the problems with the sources and how those problems were resolved. While it is clear that these recordings were made at a time when technology was much weaker, the post-processing has definitely delivered a more-than-satisfactory account of both Ferrier’s voice and her accompanying piano. The accompanying pianists are, in order of appearance, Frederick Stone, Walter, and Moore.
While I, personally, have tried to avoid treating Ferrier as a cult figure, I very much enjoy all of the recordings I have accumulated of her performances. Beyond the music, however, the booklet for this new release also includes a photograph taken by Norward Inglis of Ferrier performing at the Edinburgh Festival (probably on September 3, 1951) with Walter accompanying her at the piano. Looking at that image, it is hard to avoid at least a twinge of things-ain’t-what-they-used-to-be nostalgia!
From a more dispassionate point of view, it is unclear that any of these performances will add very much to our appreciation of Ferrier’s technique that cannot be gleaned from the better-mastered recordings, most of which were released on CD to commemorate her 100th birthday. Nevertheless, I suspect that there will, for a long time, be a “critical mass” of vocal music lovers who cannot get enough of Ferrier. They will most likely be satisfied with how SOMM has produced this release. I certainly am, and I expect that I shall be revisiting it with the same attention I already have for the more polished recordings in my collection.