Kathleen Ferrier

Contralto

Schubert Club Performance: April 6, 1949

Kathleen Ferrier

Artist note by Richard Evidon

During her tragically short career – she died of cancer at the age of 41 in 1953 – the English contralto Kathleen Ferrier won the hearts of millions of listeners not only in her native country but also on this side of the Atlantic. Through her recordings, she remains one of classical music’s best-loved artists. Ferrier’s radiant simplicity made her an ideal interpreter of British folk songs. A lovely example is this Scottish favorite from a 1951 studio recording:

The warmth and melancholy dark colors of her contralto were also perfectly suited to Handel. Here is her famous recording of the so-called “Largo” – the aria “Ombra mai fù” from the opera Serse – recorded in 1949, the year of her Schubert Club appearance:

Ferrier included Handel and folksongs in her St. Paul recital, which came during the second of three North American tours she undertook between 1948 and 1950. In New York, on the first of those transatlantic trips, she auditioned for the great German conductor Bruno Walter, who described the event in his autobiography: “She came and sang Brahms for me, and I engaged her. Her singing was of such rare beauty: beauty of expression, beauty of voice, purity, and beauty of personality.” Walter became her mentor. That season, with him at the helm the New York Philharmonic and the composer’s widow in the audience, she sang in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, of which Walter had conducted the premiered and become the work’s supreme interpreter. She soon went on to make benchmark recordings of that work and Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) with Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic. Here she can be heard in the cycle’s second song:

In 2004, the BBC produced this excellent documentary portrait of her life and career, Kathleen Ferrier: An Ordinary Diva:

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