Contralto Emily Marvosh and the superb pianist Tanya Blaich rewarded last night’s packed Goethe-Institut Boston with an extraordinarily moving homage to the beloved British contralto Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953) and eminent pianist/conductor Bruno Walter 1876-1962). In 1946, After meeting at a dinner party in 1946, the two shared a deep friendship and collaboration until her early death, from breast cancer, in 1953. Their performances helped bring the music of Gustav Mahler in particular, to wider audiences. Marvosh and Blaich modeled the evening on the friends’ famous Edinburgh Festival performances with Walter at the keyboard; they gave similar recitals on American tours in 1948 and 1949. Marvosh conceived and delivered an evening of unusually moving music-making, punctuated tastefully with anecdotes on the “brief but fruitful friendship” of the two earlier musicians.
Marvosh began with the lullaby-like “Blow the Wind Southerly.” In a documentary about Ferrier, which opens with this unaccompanied song, (mezzo-soprano) Dame Janet Baker states, “There’s nothing like unaccompanied singing to reach the heart. You’re getting the glory of this human sound. Kathleen Ferrier’s life was not a tragic one, even despite its brevity. She was 41 years old when she died. In the ten or so years of fame which were granted her, “she achieved more than most singers achieve in a lifetime,” Walter said of Ferrier, “a voice of rare beauty, a natural production of tone, a genuine warmth of expression.” The same might be said about Emily Marvosh, whose unaccompanied songs soared over us gloriously, indeed. A singer of great charm, she communicates like a gifted actress in tones of polished amber. Blaich’s contribution was warmly sensitive to color and mood.
According to Marvosh, when touring, “Ferrier often began her recitals with Baroque selections, performed in a style that sounds old-fashioned to us today; followed by a stand-alone set of Lieder such as Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -Leben or Brahms’s Four Serious Songs. She often ended with assorted English songs and ballads from Purcell to Britten; these were her favorites and her audiences loved her for singing them…. We hope Kathleen (Klever Kaff, as she often signed her letters) and Bruno’s personalities and artistic fingerprints survive and endear themselves to you this evening.”
A grouping of six Schubert Lieder started with a song that touched this listener, “An die Leier” (To the Lyre) in which, to quote Marvosh, “The poet wants to sing of the great heroes of the past, but his harp won’t cooperate. Even with new strings, it will only let him sing of love. Well, then, let it be so.” Rather than include the lyrics to the songs, Marvosh put them up on her website, writing her own synopses, a practice I wish other singers might consider. This way, one doesn’t spend precious time buried in the text. The other Schubert selections were Suleika 1 (Zuleika’s song), Suleika II, Der Tod und das Mädchen, Wandrers Nachtlied (Wanderer’s Night Song), and Lachen und Weinen (Laughing and Weeping). The collaboration between Marvosh and Blaich could not have been more elegant or more compelling, so the listeners could imagine they were getting a feeling for Ferrier’s and Walter’s artistic chemistry.
The duo put across Johannes Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge: (Four Serious Songs) with supreme grace. Marvosh explained that Ferrier never had an education in Lied, and so “Bruno” (a half-hour-in, we were starting to feel like they were new friends) “a prickly old man,” became her language coach and guide. In a tribute, Walter said that the greatest privileges in his life were to have known and worked with Kathleen Ferrier and Gustav Mahler—in that order. “Quintessentially British, lively and jolly with a too-loud laugh,” Ferrier met Walter in 1946, and had their first recital scheduled for 1949. Brahms wrote “Four Serious Songs” in 1896, as Clara Schumann lay dying after a 40-year friendship with him; he died less than a year later. “These were the last songs he wrote,” Marvosh noted, getting each of their emotional temperatures just right. A superb collaboration between voice and piano that, I imagine, was as glorious as the two friendships being honored.
Gustav Mahler was represented with consummate artistry by “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” (I breathe in the scent of the linden) from Rückert-Lieder and “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (I am lost to the world). Walter met Mahler in 1894, and he considered himself the protector and prophet of Mahler’s music. Ferrier, with Walter conducting, recorded one of the landmark recordings of Das Lied von der Erde. They also collaborated on Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, and Symphonies 2 and 3. Mahler was the last music Ferrier and Walter, performed together.
Ferrier liked to begin recitals with English and Irish songs. We were generously treated to some her favorites, beginning with Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “Silent Noon” and Benjamin Britten’s heart-wrenching arrangement of “Down by the Salley Gardens” (both on YouTube). Ned Rorem’s “Interlude” from Songs of Love and Rain (with lyrics by Theodore Roethke) and the traditional “Pretty Saro” were given lovely performances. The encore was Britten’s rollicking fun arrangement of “Oliver Cromwell.”
For relative newcomers to Ferrier’s magic, the program notes included the section, “Media/Additional reading [we provide a link here].” Nerds like myself will most likely have a look at these books, recordings, articles, letters and diaries because this program truly wakened my interest in Kathleen Ferrier. I am deeply grateful to Marvosh and Blaich for such a gorgeous introduction to a touching, little-known friendship.