The name of Kathleen Ferrier will be known to many music lovers, but my hunch is that it will be new to most who dip into this site from time to time. If you have not heard of her before, I am confident you will see why she was so adored in her tragically short life.
Ferrier was an English singer with a contralto voice. This is a lower range which we do not hear too often these days (I suppose Cecilia Bartoli comes closest at the moment), and at first listening it can seem slightly strange; but with each hearing, you get more and more hooked into something which is very rich, even a little dark, but velvety and so full of heart too. Once you have heard her, you will know her voice instantly the next time you encounter it: it is quite unlike anyone else’s.
The world of music was completely stunned when news of her death from cancer was announced in 1953, at the age of 41, not least because the true seriousness of her illness had been kept secret; and because, since her debut in Handel’s ‘Messiah’ at Westminster Abbey in 1947, she had enjoyed enormous popularity with both her voice and warm, humorous personality. She was not comfortable with the operatic scene, choosing only two roles in that field (Orfeo in Gluck’s ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’, and Lucretia in Britten’s ‘The Rape of Lucretia’), and concentrated her short career on the concert platform in Europe and especially London; notably in Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ (the only work by that Englishman I could not live without), and Bach’s ‘St Matthew Passion’ (the one work in the entire classical repertoire which would always feature on my Desert Island list).
There is a good amount of recordings to choose from, but one of the things I enjoy is selecting pieces which are well known to us and then demonstrate that there is someone surprising who delivers it without equal. George Frederic Handel was born in Germany the same year as J S Bach, 1650, and spent fifty years in England, becoming naturalised British. He was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1759. (I wonder how many more Continental Europeans will achieve that accolade in the future.) He wrote so much with which we are all very familiar (Fireworks Music, Water Music, Zadoc The Priest etc.), as well as forty operas – amongst which ‘Xerxes’ was a complete flop; but its opening aria ‘Ombra mai fu’ has survived as one of Handel’s favourites, sung by almost every singer of note. So I accept that it is quite an assertion to make that I think this recording of over sixty years ago has not been bettered, but I am happy to stand by that.
If you’re not sure on first listening, I will not be surprised. But I will be surprised if she doesn’t grab you on the second, third – and then a few more. Perhaps slower than you might expect, it’s no less heavenly for that. The legendary conductor, Bruno Walter, is reported to have remarked that the high points in his career were ” meeting Kathleen Ferrier and Gustav Mahler – in that order.” Praise indeed.