Voices to Live For

Every music-loving audiophile has a unique story—a story of the first time he or she was grabbed, body and soul, by a first, usually low-budget listen to a 78, LP, CD, open-reel, cassette, or MP3—a story that continues today in that audiophile's quest for high-end bliss. For me, it was my desire to move closer to the voices of the singers I most loved.

It all began with operatic tenor Enrico Caruso (1873–1921). When I was 11, my father brought home a fancy three-LP set of Caruso reissues on RCA, complete with lavishly printed liner notes adorned with sepia-tone illustrations. When he put on the sextet from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and Caruso's voice rang out through our new, custom-enclosed, but ultimately so-so stereo, I exclaimed, "Daddy, I've heard that before!"

"Yeah, you broke it when you were two," was his slightly caustic reply.

It was only years later, after I'd started on my quest to understand what life and my inner psyche were about, that I realized that, even before I'd broken Caruso's recording, is voice had broken through the emotional barriers that a challenging childhood had led me to erect around myself. Few people could get through those walls, but, thanks to his recordings, Caruso was one of them. Thus began my love affair with artists who have the rare ability to sing directly from the heart; an affair that eventually led to my current system, and to my work as an audiophile and music critic.

As I matured, my need to explore the communicative power of the human voice extended far beyond Caruso and Italian repertoire. New voices and new loves captured my imagination, each teaching me something more about what it means to be fully alive, open and present in the moment. Some singers taught me about love, some about suffering; the greatest taught me about the transcendent oneness that binds us all together, despite our differences. The more I learned, the more I longed for a sound system that could get me even closer to the moment of creation.

Which leads me to centenary celebrations of the birth of one of the most profound vocal artists of the 20th century, British contralto Kathleen Ferrier (1912–1953). That the occasion has been celebrated by a plethora of new CD and DVD releases comes as no surprise.

Recently, after the arrival of the Wilson Audio Specialties Sophia 3 loudspeakers, which have transformed the sound of my system, I put on a 1949 live recording of Ferrier singing Brahms's Alto Rhapsody, with Erik Tuxen directing the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus. I was astonished to hear how, at the beginning of Brahms's setting of three verses from Goethe's poem "Winter Journey in the Harz Mountains," the voice of Ferrier's wanderer virtually shook from pain that could not be contained. As I listened, I, too, was filled with her pain.

This is the effect Ferrier had on her listeners in performance after performance, both in concert and on disc. All sense of artifice fell away, as her voice spoke with such unadorned profundity as to seem a direct portal to the essence of who we are as human beings. And while she was capable of lightness—there are a number of British songs and off-the-cuff live performances that find her in a jolly, even mocking mood—it was in music of sadness, grief, lost love, and faith amid adversity that she most deeply spoke from her heart to ours.

Ferrier's gifts were apparent early on—she first came on the scene in 1942, when conductor Malcolm Sargent heard one of her performances for wartime factory workers and became enamored of her artistry—and her ability to speak as if from a place of higher truth rapidly matured. In 1946, her English-language recording, with Sargent, of "Che faro senza Euridice" (What is life to me without thee?), from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, topped the British music charts. Just as, on the day after Caruso died in 1921, everyone on New York's Lower East Side perched their wind-up phonographs on window ledges and filled the streets with the sound of Caruso's voice, house after house in Great Britain filled with the voice of Lancashire's Kathleen Ferrier while she was still alive.

Later in 1946, after Benjamin Britten had heard her, Ferrier made her stage debut at the Glyndebourne Festival in the premiere of the composer's heartbreaking chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia. The great conductor Bruno Walter, whose recordings of Brahms and Mahler have long been audiophile favorites, also became her champion, accompanying her in recital and using her to champion the works of Gustav Mahler.

But Ferrier's career was not to last. In March 1951, following a period of severe pain in her arm and back, Ferrier was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her performances continued, sandwiched between visits to doctors and hospitals and nearly insufferable pain. Her final public appearances were in February 1953. Not far into the second of five scheduled performances of Orfeo at the Royal Opera House, Ferrier was looking as beautiful as ever when her leg shattered; the cancer had metastasized to her bones. She miraculously managed to complete the performance by standing still and, as if by telepathy, redirecting cast members to improvise their movements around her. Eight months later, she was dead.

Was her diagnosis of cancer, and her increasing awareness of impending death, responsible for the depth of Ferrier's performances and recordings late in her career—or do those performances only seem deeper to us because we know what she was going through at the time? It's hard to know. On a recent release, In Memoriam (CD, Tahra 725), we can hear excerpts from two different concert recordings of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, performed by Bruno Walter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in 1949 and 1952. To these ears, the singing in both is so overwhelmingly poignant that there is no need to choose.

This is a bonanza year for Ferrier lovers. All of her Decca recordings have been remastered and collected in the Centenary Edition: The Complete Decca Recordings (14 CDs, Decca 001654200). A separate set includes a DVD of Kathleen Ferrier, a new 68-minute film directed by Diane Perelsztejn, as well as a CD of over 51 minutes of previously unreleased live recordings. Play Ferrier's recording of "Silent Noon," from Ralph Vaughan-Williams's House of Life, and prepare to enter a place of sacred stillness. EMI gives us The Complete EMI Recordings (3 CDs, EMI 56284), which includes previously unissued alternate takes for her 1949 recording, with Walter and the VPO, of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder.

With each new release and each new remastering, we are better able to move closer to the soul of one of greatest artists of the last century. How lucky we are to have equipment fine enough to help lift the veils of time and technology, to enable us to celebrate the beauty that life has to offer.—Jason Victor Serinus

volvic's picture

The 1952 recording of Das Lied is the reference in my opinion, and what a voice she had.  I applaud you and the magazine for reporting on this great artist who sadly, left us too soon.