Just a single phrase of Kathleen Ferrier's singing reveals a voice of extraordinary power and expression. She's still an inspiration, nearly 60 years after her tragically early death
"The greatest thing in music in my life has been to know Kathleen Ferrier and Gustav Mahler – in that order." That's what the conductor Bruno Walter wrote after Ferrier's death from breast cancer in 1953, at the age of just 41. You might think that Walter was being understandably hyperbolic in the grief-stricken wake of a tragically early death – after all, not only did Walter know Mahler, he also gave the world premiere of the Ninth Symphony – but then you listen to Ferrier's recordings, and you understand. That sumptuous, noble contralto voice is of a type they just don't make any more, and the lyrical and expressive power of her singing, from folk songs to Brahms, from Bach to Gluck, is unforgettable. Her most productive collaboration on disc was with the Decca company, but EMI are just about to release their complete Ferrier archive, including two songs from Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, recorded with Walter, which have never been heard before, extra takes from the sessions during which they recorded the complete set.
Ferrier was born a hundred years ago, and raised in Blackburn, and thought first of becoming a pianist rather than a singer, until a bet with her then husband that she could win a singing competition in Carlisle. She did, of course, and that victory gave her a glimpse of what she might be capable of if she turned her attention to her voice. She never looked back, touring with CEMA, the forerunner of the Arts Council, during the war years, and then moving to London, giving the concerts and making the recordings that still resonate so movingly today. But Ferrier's music-making is only one part of her personality. Christopher Fifield's new edition of her letters and diaries reveal the sometimes scabrously witty woman behind the dignity of her singing. She's a brilliant correspondent with her family, friends, and supporters all over the world (she was a sensation in America as well as Britain, and found success across Europe), self-deprecatory to the end, and she was girlishly excited to be working with the conductors and composers she most admired.
Britten wrote the title role in his opera The Rape of Lucretia for her, and the canticle Abraham and Isaac for her and Peter Pears to sing, she worked with Barbirolli, with Adrian Boult, and with the accompanist Gerald Moore. But the partnership that meant most to her was with Bruno Walter. In 1947, she sang Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde with him for the first time at the Edinburgh festival. It was the start of a special relationship, above all in Mahler's great song-symphony of earthly delights and trascendental farewell. By the time they made their studio recording of Das Lied von der Erde, with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1952, Ferrier had already undergone treatment for the cancer that would claim her life; in the final half-hour song Abschied - "Farewell", Ferrier's voice plumbs still unequalled depths of poetry and meaning.
Until the very end, Ferrier never allowed her illness to get the better of her emotionally or physically. She never complains in her letters, and in her final performance, in another of her favourite pieces, Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice at Covent Garden, a fragment of her hip-bone sheared off, causing what must have been almost unbearable agony. Yet she sang on until the end of the performance. As Christopher Fifield told me, Ferrier's voice is still an inspiration, not least because she ought to inspire singers to properly inhabit the contralto register rather than push upwards into mezzo-soprano-dom, as so many singers today think they have to do. But most of all, it's that voice that seems to resonate inside you when you hear it, as if you're physically connected with Ferrier's voice, and which makes everything she sings so direct, so powerful, and so contemporary. As she would say herself - Klever Kaff.
• Kathleen Ferrier, the Complete EMI Recordings (3 cds) is released on 16 April 2012.
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