Kathleen Ferrier: A Film by Diane Perelsztejn

As Richard Boldrey puts it, in Guide to Operatic Roles and Arias (1994),
they are the “witches, bitches, or britches”. But, even those — Nancy
Evans, Edith Coates — who have reached a position of considerable prominence
and approbation, have seldom equalled Kathleen Ferrier’s iconic status, or
inspired the enduring devotion aroused in her admirers — feats made more
astonishing in the light of the brevity of her life, just 41 years, and singing
career, a mere 10.

Born and brought up in a terrace house in Blackburn, Lancashire, Ferrier was
intelligent, witty and noted for her sharp humour and sense of fun. She left
school at 14 and began working as a telephone operator, while continuing to
develop her musical talents through piano and singing lessons. Marriage in 1935
allowed her to focus more seriously on her music and, following early successes
— in the 1937 Carlisle Festival (at both piano and voice) — she reached the
heights of her profession at astonishing speed. A relentless touring and
performance schedule took her to the world’s finest stages; her performances
of Bach, Brahms and particularly Mahler, became legendary, and a list of the
maestri with whom she worked reads like a roll call of
twentieth-century conducting honour: Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Adrian Boult,
Walter Goehr, Reginald Goodall, Charles Groves, Herbert von Karajan, Erich
Kleiber, Otto Klemperer, Clemens Krauss, Rafael Kubelik, Sir Malcolm Sargent,
Walter Susskind and George Szell, to name but a few.

This DVD, narrated by Charlotte Rampling, moves swiftly through the early
years and first London successes, conveying the depth and breadth of impact
that Ferrier achieved as she established herself as a striking contralto, with
a warm, vibrant tone and extensive range. She attracted the attention of Sir
Malcolm Sargeant and John Tillet — the latter immediately put her on his
agencies books — but not of Lennox Berkley, then head of BBC music
programming, who professed himself unimpressed by 30-year-old singer’s first
London performance!

Anxious and disappointed, Ferrier began studying with baritone Roy
Henderson, one of many commentators on this film, who notes that despite her
remarkable musicianship — she could learn even the most difficult music with
ease — Ferrier was surprisingly timid about expressing emotions. However, by
the time of her 1947 Edinburgh Festival appearance with Bruno Walter,
performing Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, her performances were
characterised by expressive freedom and openness. Much time is devoted to this
landmark performance, and Perelsztejn fully communicates the unrivalled
significance of Ferrier’s relationship with Walter to her professional,
musical and personal development. Ferrier remarked that performing with Walter
was “truly memorable, always exciting and sometimes almost unbearably

We follow the highpoints of Ferrier’s career — The Rape of
at Glyndebourne in 1946, her 1948 Carnegie Hall debut,
experienced by millions of American radio listeners, Das Lied in
Salzburg in 1949 broadcast throughout Europe, recitals accompanied by Walter in
New York and London, a performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass in 1950,
with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, which is said to have moved conductor Herbert von
Karajan to tears. Historic recordings of studio and live performances are
illustrated by photographs of Ferrier rehearsing, in performance, relaxing with
her fellow musicians; perhaps the ever-changing shots and film footage of
places and objects — wartime London, trains and boats, an array of 1940s
radio sets and the Cumbrian countryside — are a little wearying after a time,
but they do give a sense of time and place, as well as the rollercoaster
intensity of Ferrier’s career. My only real misgiving concerned the need to
intercut stills of Ferrier performing Das Lied with film of the
contemporary ensemble, Ictus, rehearsing the work before a projected image of
the singer.

As well as extracts from her own diaries, and recorded comments made by
Ferrier, there are contributions from a host of writers who have made Ferrier
their subject: Ian Jack, author of Klever Kaff, Boris Terk (A
Voice is a Person
), biographer Maurice Leonard (The Life of Kathleen
), and the editor of her letters and diaries, Christopher Fifield.
In addition, voices from the past explain Ferrier’s unrivalled magnetism: her
sister Winifred (who recalls Ferrier’s belief that to convey the true meaning
of a song one had to “paint the words”), assistant Bernie Hammond, and
musicians and writers such as Michael Kennedy (biographer of Sir John
Barbirolli, who conducted of Ferrier’s last stage performance), and the
current director of the Edinburgh Festival, Jonathan Mills, all add to a lively
narrative which conveys the warmth and vivaciousness of Ferrier’s character.
Indeed, Jack notes that her beer drinking, cigarette smoking and penchant for
dirty jokes would have been considered very outrÈ and mannish!

In interview, Benjamin Britten, who was in the audience for Ferrier’s
performance of the Messiah at Westminster Cathedral in 1943, and who
went on to create many roles for Ferrier, observes simply that, “Here was a
voice that could sing this extremely awkward music without any effort”.

The final stages of the film deal with Ferrier’s personal relationships,
and we learn about her relationship with Rick Davies — the significance of
which has not been previously well known due to the media’s respect for the
singer’s privacy and Winifred restricting access to the diaries — and with
her father. Her fatal illness is sensitively depicted, revealing the humour and
courage (she continued to perform despite the pain caused by her breast cancer)
with which she bore discomfort and adversity.

Contralto Natalie Stutzmann insightfully analyses the strengths and appeal
of Ferrier’s voice, remarking its ambiguous combination of “the colour of
the chest voice usually found in the male voice with the clarity of the female
voice”, and the beauty and length of her breath. But, whatever her technical
strengths, it was the way her relaxed, earthy contralto communication so
naturally that struck her devotees, for whom she was the ‘girl-next-door’,
bringing classical music to an entirely new audience.

Charlotte Rampling’s narration is sometimes given to hyperbole: “when
she died in 1953 she was the most beloved woman in Britain.” Considering the
effect of Ferrier’s performances of Handel, she asks, “Had audiences heard
in her voice a kind of messiah?” But, perhaps such eulogies are deserved,
given that Bruno Walter reputedly declared that the two greatest musical
experience of his life were meeting Kathleen Ferrier and Gustav Mahler, “in
that order”.

Accompanying the DVD is a companion CD featuring 40 minutes of unreleased
live recordings. During a third tour of North American which commenced in
December 1949, Ferrier performed at the Town Hall, New York, on Sunday 8
January 1950: her contributions to the recital were three pieces attributed to
Bach and Brahms’ Four Serious Songs, and these works are included

Of the Bach songs, which have previously been recorded by Decca, the most
well-known is ‘Bist du bei mir’, which together with the rarer ‘Vergifl
mein nicht’ and ‘Ach, dafl nicht die letzte Stunde’ reveals the absolute
purity of Ferrier’s tone and the consummate breath control which enables her
to adopt daringly slow tempi, allowing the spiritual core of the music to be
deeply felt.

Given that the Brahms songs were recorded live at that 1950 New York
concert, the quality of the sound is excellent: clear and full. ‘One thing
that befalleth the beasts and the sons of men’ is tailor-made for Ferrier’s
earthy, burnished lower register, but it is the contrast between this and the
lighter, brighter top which brings vividness to the song. The broad-breathed
phrases of ‘So I returned and did consider’ have a lyrical fluency, and one
senses the drama of Ferrier’s live performance, with individual words given a
surge of energy and brightness. ‘O death, how bitter art thou’ possesses a
rhetorical splendour. In both Bach and Brahms, Ferrier is accompanied by
pianist John Newmark.

The final items are from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, a poignant
inclusion for it was during a performance of this opera in 1953, with Sir John
Barbirolli, that Ferrier suffered a fractured femur, a sign that the breast
cancer for which she had been treated had attacked her bones; she was not to
perform again. This is also a live recording from the 1950 tour, which has
since languished in the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound in
the New York Public Library. Perhaps one is misguided to detect an underlying
pathos and melancholy in Ferrier’s voice, but the temptation is strong.
Ferrier is joined by Ann Ayars as Euridice, The Westminster Choir (conducted by
John Finley Williams) and a rather dry-sounding Little Orchestra Society
(conductor, Thomas K. Scherman).

This Decca pair contain old and new, familiar and rare. The much-feted
career highlights and the newly released recordings, images and films will be
equally enjoyed by Ferrier aficionados and new disciples alike.

Claire Seymour

image_description=Kathleen Ferrier: A Film by Diane Perelsztejn
product_title=Kathleen Ferrier: A Film by Diane Perelsztejn
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Decca 0440 074 3479 6 [CD & DVD]