Parallel Lives II: Kathleen Ferrier

Who was she?
The most beloved of all English singers, and deservedly so, Kathleen Ferrier was born in Lancashire in 1912. She originally intended to become a pianist, and although some vocal potential was discovered quite early, she spent the first decades of her adult life as a telephonist, only making her debut as a professional in Newcastle in 1942, having hitherto restricted her singing to the local choral society. From 1944 she tirelessly performed in the Messiah and the St Matthew Passion, leaving hardly a parish church unvisited. She only ever sang in two operatic roles on stage: in the title role of Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, which was written for her, and in several productions of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.

The affliction
She toured extensively in Europe and the United States, but before long she was diagnosed as suffering from cancer of the breast. She had many operations, and gave her last performances in February 1953, as Orfeo at Covent Garden with Barbirolli, with whom she had forged a fruitful partnership, as conductor; during Act 2 her hip broke on stage, but she sang to the end of the opera and left the Royal Opera House in an ambulance. She died in October of that year.

Why the cult?
In a short career cut short by her tragic death, Ferrier quickly achieved a huge reputation for the warmth and sincerity of her singing, as well as the overwhelming intrinsic beauty of her voice. It’s said that her singing of the ‘Agnus Dei’ from Bach’s Mass in B minor reduced Karajan to tears – a tall order.

Reputation verdict
Her reputation has never shown the least sign of being eclipsed thanks to the imaginative policy of Decca, the company with which she made all her records. Not long after the war she met Bruno Walter, and he trained her in the great Mahler song cycles, above all in Das Lied von der Erde, which she recorded in Vienna in 1952. Walter is alleged to have said that the two greatest artistic encounters of his life were ‘with Ferrier and Mahler, in that order’. If so, he was being extravagant, but listening to her in almost anything she recorded one sees why he might have said it.

She is one of the most spontaneously appealing of singers, and in quite a wide repertoire. The thing that was clearly out of her range was eroticism, and wisely she steered clear of it, at any rate in her art. There is, I suppose it must be admitted, a certain stateliness about her singing, a slight sense that she was indeed at home in all those Anglican buildings she did the rounds of. Yet the note of passionate regret in her Mahler singing remains unequalled and she has an overflowing sense of fun which comes through most in some of her folksong recordings, though of course the best known is Blow the Wind Southerly, where the velvety quality of her voice is on rich display.

Classic CD magazine, 1997

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