When the English contralto Norma Procter died a few weeks ago at the age of 89, readers remembered seeing Kathleen Ferrier in her audience at Norma’s London debut, at Southwark Cathedral, in 1948. This was typical Ferrier. Six years before she had been a switchboard operator in Lancashire with no hopes of a music career. Now an international star, she took every opportunity to offer support and encouragement to others on the way up. Hearing that Norma was studying in London with her own teacher, Roy Henderson, Ferrier invited her to stay over at her own West Hampstead flat rather than catch the late train home to Grimsby.
Listening to these Ferrier tracks, newly retrieved from BBC broadcasts and never released before, I am struck over again by the great contralto’s overriding characteristic – her natural, unfettered generosity. In song after song, she gives all of herself, nothing held back. The pianist, Frederick Stone, gives professional backing in Schubert and Brahms songs. Ferrier transcends his solid efforts. She simply soars.
Mahler’s Urlicht, with Bruno Walter at the piano, is something else altogether. The great conductor sounds almost tentative beside Ferrier’s serene assurance. Her generosity extends as much to the words as to the music. Her German is articulated with precision and pride, nothing to be ashamed of so soon after the War, every syllable given full due.
Many of these songs will be familiar from her Decca discography. What is completely new on this release are six English tracks – three Psalms that Edmund Rubbra wrote for her in 1946, and others by Stanford, Parry and the lesser-known Maurice Jacobsen, a mentor of hers. The songs belong to an almost forgotten era of English simplicity and Ferrier delivers them in the most idiomatic fashion, without advocacy or ornament.
Some of the tracks were recorded off-air and the sound is fairly crackly. But I would not want to be without this record of an immortal artist, and nor will you once you have heard it.
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