Friday, April 12, 2024

Singers Remembered, 1: Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953)

Singers Remembered is Operapost’s series devoted to the most representative clips of artists whose memory is alive for today’s operaphiles.

Kathleen Ferrier’s death from cancer truncated the career of one of the most beloved and admired singers of the 20th century. International fame came to this British contralto in 1946 when she participated in the premiere performances of Benjamin Britten’s opera The Rape of Lucretia. A favorite of star conductors Bruno Walter and John Barbirolli, her concert tours brought her to America and Europe beginning in 1948. Her sole roles in opera were Britten’s Lucretia and Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. The repertoire of her song recitals was drawn principally from German lieder, English art songs, and English folk songs. She was a frequent soloist in Handel’s Messiah and in the orchestral/vocal works of Elgar and Mahler. Ferrier’s rich column of sound, evenness of emission, and deep immersion in music and text are haunting. Once heard, her timbre is not forgotten.

Among the many tributes from her colleagues, that of Bruno Walter has been highlighted by biographers: "The greatest thing in music in my life has been to have known Kathleen Ferrier and Gustav Mahler—in that order."

Ferrier was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1951 but continued to sing, often in great pain, until eight months before her death. Her final performance was as Orfeo at Covent Garden in Feb. 1953, conducted by Barbirolli. She had contracted to sing the opera four times, but during the second her femur collapsed. She got through to the end by standing immobile and relying on the cast members to improvise the action. Several hospitalizations were unable to arrest the disease; she died in October.

Here is a recording of Orfeo’s aria, “Che faro senza Euridice (What will I do without Euridice)” taken from a live 1951 performance in Amsterdam, soon after she learned of her cancer diagnosis.

Ferrier’s a cappella recording of the Northumberland folk song, “Blow the Wind Southerly,” documents the richeness of her voice, the evenness of her scale, and her penetration of the text.

Lieder featured prominently on Ferrier's recital programs. This is her moving interpretation of Schumann’s “Widmung (Dedication).”

Known for the wit she was rarely called upon to express in her predominantly serious repertoire, here is her rollicking rendition of Schubert’s delightful “Der Musensohn (The Son of the Muses).

With Bruno Walter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world), is evidence of Ferrier’s strong affinity for Mahler.


Youtube has many Ferrier clips. All are recommended. The excerpts from Handel’s “Messiah” are remarkable.




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