Sunday, July 8, 2012

Kathleen Ferrier Deserved Better

Did Vivien Schweitzer really have to provide such a slipshod account of Kathleen Ferrier for today’s Arts and Leisure section of The New York Times? Her second paragraph gives an account of Ferrier’s legacy that is so inadequate as to make just about anyone familiar with the work of this contralto see red:
In honor of the centennial of her birth, EMI has released her complete recordings on a three-disc set, an impressive showcase of her artistry in trademark works of Bach, Gluck, Handel and Mahler. Decca is offering a new film, directed by Diane Perelsztejn and narrated by the English actress Charlotte Rampling, that explores the life and legacy of Ferrier, who died at 41 from cancer. The film includes a companion CD of unreleased live recordings, including Brahms lieder.
The fact is that the EMI collection barely scratches the surface of Ferrier’s recorded legacy, which is represented far more extensively by the fourteen CDs in the Decca Centenary Edition box. This is not to dismiss the quality of the EMI material, summarized in my account as “how the smaller packages can still offer up some really good things.” Nevertheless, Decca was the label that represented the lion’s share of Ferrier’s recording work, including her recording of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with Bruno Walter conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker and Julius Patzak singing the tenor songs. The Perelsztejn film cited by Schweitzer declares this to be the “gold standard” of recordings of this particular Mahler composition. (My own account simply called it “essential listening for anyone serious about the Mahler repertoire.”) Ironically, Schweitzer also neglects to mention that the Decca box has its own documentary DVD, An Ordinary Diva, made by Suzanne Philips, which, in my own humble opinion, provides the better account of the two films.

Nevertheless, while there are certainly many interesting aspects to Ferrier’s biography, it is through her music that she deserves to be remembered. Her recording legacy may not be as polished as those who would later benefit from improved technology, such as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau or Herbert von Karajan, who seems to have made it a point to learn as much about microphones as he knew about all of the instruments of the orchestra. Nevertheless, the recorded gems can be found in both the Decca and EMI collections; and any account that neglects both of these sources is doing her memory a great disservice.

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