Thursday, September 18, 2014

Kathleen Ferrier: An Ordinary Diva

In a career that lasted just fifteen meteoric years, Kathleen Ferrier went from prize-winning amateur at the Carlisle Festival to giving the definitive performance of Gluck’s ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’ at Covent Garden under Sir John Barbirolli, by way of still-unsurpassed professional relationships with Benjamin Britten (her Glyndebourne debut was in his just-written ‘The Rape of Lucretia’), Sir Adrian Boult and Bruno Walter. Ferrier’s recording with Walter of Mahler’s ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ is not only the most moving performance of the piece you’ll ever hear, but kickstarted a revival of interest in the composer following the blacklisting of his work under the Nazi regime. (Ferrier’s New York performances of Mahler with Walter and the New York Philharmonic were attended by Alma Mahler, the composer’s widow.)

Suzanne Phillips’s documentary, produced by the BBC under Lottery funding, keys into the importance of Ferrier’s discography, the sheer comet-like intensity of her career (in one single month, she gave 17 performances of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ – 17 performances of a taxing three hour oratorio in one freaking month), and the calibre of the conductors and orchestras she worked with; but the focus is always on Kathleen Ferrier as a person. And what an amazing, unpretentious, warm-hearted person! Drawing deeply on Ferrier’s correspondence – to friends and family she wrote witty, vivacious and conversational letters which she invariably signed “Kaff” – ‘An Ordinary Diva’ embraces its subject’s inherent likeability.

Indeed, there are times when the documentary almost seems like a puff piece. No-one has a bad word to say about her, and there’s almost a sense of a guilty secret finally breaking ground when soprano Adele Leigh recalls that Ferrier enjoyed reciting risqué limericks. Elsewhere, a letter dating from her 1947 collaboration with Fritz Stiedry (a conductor who is now almost forgotten) records that she recuperated from his bullish behaviour in rehearsals by taking herself off to the pub for “a dirty great pint”. This alone, even I wasn’t already in love with her recordings, makes me wish I could avail myself of a time machine, bugger off back to the late ’40s and sink a couple of pints with Ferrier. Put simply, she comes across as bloody good company.

Ferrier’s Amsterdam appearances in late 1946 marked the first time she travelled abroad and her letters capture the wide-eyed delight of the first-time tourist (albeit tempered by the working-class pragmatism of her Lancastrian upbringing). Her first concert appearance drew a small audience. A radio broadcast and a review so incandescent with praise that it made the front page of a Dutch newspaper turned the tide and successive performances sold out. Ferrier’s incursion into America was similarly bittersweet: the first tour saw her footing her own accommodation and expenses and ending up in debt as a result; next time round, she dictated terms and pocketed the proceeds instead of haemorrhaging them.

Add to the globetrotting (a seriously big deal for an English artiste in the first decade after the end of the war) a massively popular series of recordings on the Decca label and Ferrier looked set to conquer the world. Fate stepped in to dictate otherwise. In 1951, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. A mastectomy and chemotherapy (then called “radiation therapy”) seemed to keep the disease in check and Ferrier continued touring and recording. Secondary cancer proved terminal, however, with the cells moving to the bones. Under a sentence of death, Ferrier fought to complete two career-defining achievements. The first was a recording, with Walter, of ‘Das Lied von der Erde’. A beautifully understated archive interview with Ferrier’s personal assistant yields a telling memory: Ferrier, Walter and a few others listened to the master tape playback for the first time. As the last note faded, there was absolute silence. Then Ferrier turned to Walter and asked, “Was I all right, love?” That was the part of the documentary where I broke down and cried.

The second, her remission worsening, was ‘Orfeo’ – full staged performance – at Covent Garden. During the second night, her femur broke rendering her immobile on stage (and it can only be imagined in what degree of pain). Her supporting cast, including Leigh, tailored their performances to disguise her suffering and Ferrier insisted on a curtain call before being carried to a waiting ambulance. This is something worth remembering next time you watch a football match and some ponce-haired nobody plays to the gallery, clutching his leg and wailing after a tackle. Kathleen Ferrier was harder than your average professional sportsman.

Ferrier was only 41 when she died in her sleep. Ten years earlier and her career might have missed the golden age of recorded classical music. Ten years later and enough archive footage might have existed to render ‘An Ordinary Diva’ twice or three times its length. But speculation is pointless. The fact is, Kathleen Ferrier was taken from us on 8 October 1953. Her legacy is impossible to overstate. If anyone with even the vaguest interest in the repertoire can listen to her Mahler and remain dry-eyed, they’re possibly sociopathic. Decca have honoured her recordings and kept them in the catalogue. The 10-disc box set released to mark the fiftieth anniversary of her passing was a thing of beauty. Suzanne Phillips’s documentary – narrated by Robert Lindsay and with her letters read by Patricia Routledge – was not only timely but gave us the woman at the heart of the artist; the human being who embodied the passion.

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