Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Kathleen Ferrier: The Real Voice of the North

TO commemorate the centennial of the birth of the North of England contralto from Blackburn, Kathleen Ferrier, EMI has released her complete recordings on a three-disk set:  including a display of her artistry through the works of Gluck, Bach, Handel and Mahler.  At the same time Decca is releasing a new film of Kathleen Ferrier, directed by Diane Perelszteji, and narrated by by Charlotte Rampling.  The film looks at the life of the lass from Blackburn, Lancashire, who died of cancer in 1953 at the age of 41, and includes a companion CD of unreleased live recordings, including Brahms lieder.

Vivien Schweitzer in last Friday's Herald Tribune wrote:  'From humble beginnings as telephone operator near Blackburn, England, Ferrier became one of Britain's most beloved singers, her rich and haunting voice providing solace to a war-torn nation.'  What seems to have been the key to Kathleen's success is explained by Ms. Schweitzer thus:  'Ferrier's voice was remarkable not only for its unusually low range and striking timbre, but also for the expressive, yearning qualities that often reduced audiences and colleagues to tears.'  In the film, Nathalie Stuzman says that Ferrier 'had the deepest voice imaginable for a woman (combining) the colour of a chest voice, usually found in male voices, with the clarity of a female voice.'

Kathleen Ferrier married Albert Wilson in 1935, at the age of 23, and left her job.  The marriage was not successful, and it effectively ended when Albert joined the army in 1940; they divorced in 1947, but remained on good terms.  It seems Ferrier drank beer and smoked, and is reported to had a boisterous personality, a rowdy sense of humour and quick wit.  She never remarried but had a long-term companion in Rick Davis, a Liverpool antiques dealer.

She found out that she had breast cancer in 1951 and had a mastectomy.  Her international career extended from 1946 to 1953, when she died.  She made her New York début in 1948 singing Mahler's 'Das Lied von der Erde' at Carnegie Hall with Bruno Walter.  Walter himself once said that the two greatest musical experiences of his life were knowing the contralto Kathleen Ferrier and Mahler.  Vivien Schweitzer writes:  'She would probably have entered Wagnerian terrain had she lived longer.'  As it was Ferrier took the role of Orfeo with the conductor John Barbirolli at the Royal Opera House, in English, and during rehearsals she had had daily treatment in hospital; the premiere, in February 1953, was a success, but during the second performance, the femur in her left leg fractured while she was on stage - the cancer had spread to her bones -  she remained standing, and finished the performance with the audience not aware of what had happened.  After that Ferrier was put in hospital and never walked again.  She died a few months later.

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