GHCD 2260/61/62 – MASS IN B MINOR – Bach, FOUR SERIOUS SONGS – Brahms – 1951
Vienna Singverein, Vienna Symphony, Herbert von Karajan, Kathleen Ferrier, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf
BBC Music Mazazine March 04
Historical – Bach in earlier times
Also celebrating the BACH anniversary in 1950 was a performance of the B minor Mass conducted by Herbert von Karajan. That is a feature of lesser note, however, than the inclusion of Kathleen Ferrier and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf among the soloists. Karajan was seldom a persuasive Bach conductor, but the presence of those two singers in a performance that is anything but lifeless – the ‘Er resurrexit’ chorus pulsates with rhythmic energy – is its most rewarding feature. It is, above all, the warmth and humanity of Ferrier’s voice which makes this reissue worth all the painstaking care that has been taken in its rehabilitation. Her two solo recitals in Oslo (1949) and London (1952), contained on the third disc, deserve to be in every collection. Purcell, Handel and Wolf form the Oslo programme, while English songs by Stanford, Bridge, Warlock, Vaughan Williams and others provide the content of the London one. Lastly and lovelier perhaps than anything else here, is Ferrier’s performance of Brahms’s Four Serious Songs in orchestrations by Malcolm Sargent.
MusicWeb Thursday January 15 04
In the 50th anniversary year of her tragically early death, it at first seemed perverse of Richard Caniell, directing genius and factotum of Guild’s Historical issues, and a Ferrier devotee, to highlight the Bach Mass in this issue of broadcast items, some not previously available. The recording of the Mass was made by a German collector. Caniell explains that over two minutes of the beginning was missing and he has interpolated the ‘equivalent’ part from Karajan’s 1952 recording made in the same venue. The alto’s contribution to this great work is limited to two solos and the duet ‘Domine Deus’ (CD1 tr.7) hence my expression of perversity. Of the solos the greatest is the ‘Agnus Dei’ (CD2 tr.7) the penultimate part of the work. However, by the time I reached it, I was already disconcerted by Karajan’s variation of tempi, and found the ‘Agnus Dei’ positively turgid. How Ferrier holds the line whilst managing so much colour and expression I don’t know. On later reading of the usually informative Guild booklet, I noted that Derek Adlam states (p.16): ‘In this movement Von Karajan adopts a tempo so extraordinarily slow that it is difficult to think of any other singer who could have sustained the long phrases so effortlessly, whilst making perfect sense of them’. I couldn’t agree more. So maybe as an illustration of Ferrier’s art and genius it wasn’t so perverse after all!
Without doubt the highlight of this three disc issue is the Brahms (CD2 trs.10-13). Not only are the songs better recorded than the other items, but also Ferrier’s singing is of the highest quality, dripping in feeling. Some have suggested particular poignancy in her rendering of ‘O death how bitter art thou’ (CD2 tr.12). I suggest that such comments are with the benefit of that most accurate of vantage points, hindsight. I focus on the rich resonances of the voice in all these songs, its even, pure projection (CD2 tr.10) and the pure chest note at 2.00 in tr.11, sung without any ‘plumminess’ in the tone whatsoever. It is these vocal qualities, allied to a keen intelligence and innate musicality, that underpin the insights in the delivery of these songs. ‘Flash’, as Sargent was known, allows some stridency from the orchestra in ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men’ (tr.13) forcing Ferrier to put pressure on her voice thus taking away some of its ethereal beauty.
Richard Caniell acknowledges that some parts of the recitals from Oslo and London, contained on CD3, have previously been released and admits (p.26) confusion as to whether Purcell’s ‘From Silent Shades’ was from the Oslo or London event, whilst Derek Adlam (p.10) attributes the Jensen aria (CD3 tr.9) to Oslo although the track listing puts it as London. Whilst Ferrier introduces the Jensen in English, and the announcer concludes likewise, there is concluding applause, as with the other Oslo items, and which is absent from the London. No matter; Ferrier’s singing of the Wolf (CD3 trs.4-7) will please all her admirers and those who appreciate quality lieder singing. There is a little surface noise to be heard, but the recording is of good overall standard and catches the voice and accompanying piano well. The warm audience applause is in no way intrusive. As to the London recital one can only admire the range, diction and expression that the singer brings to the demands of the Purcell (tr.10) although there is some distortion at times as well as tape hiss. However, these do not disturb the ‘sotto voce’ notes of Stanford’s ‘A soft day’ (CD3 tr.12). Yes, some of these items by ‘lesser’ English composers are musically trite but they provide a feast of delight for lovers of Ferrier’s art. She treats these songs to the full range of her artistry and vocal skills, for which, fifty years after her premature death, we can be forever grateful as we wallow in gratitude and enjoyment.
If not a perfect selection as a tribute to Ferrier’s memory, there is much to enjoy for lovers of her singing. Commended.
Robert J. Farr
MusicWeb Saturday December 13 03
The liner notes for this disc refer to Karajan’s stylistic approach to the ‘Mass in B minor’ as setting the work firmly within the 19th century German symphonic traditions. The massive opening Kyrie seems to confirm this, with its mammoth sound and extremely slow tempo. The sound quality of the recording does not help as this is was recorded off air. This performance is a live broadcast from Vienna marking the 200th anniversary of Bach’s death and it pre-dates by 2 years Karajan’s studio recording of the work. This recording is missing some passages and these have been made good from Karajan’s studio version.
But as I listened to the performance I was surprised at how much Karajan anticipates modern views of the performance of Bach. Yes it is performed with a large choir and a large orchestra and the harpsichord continuo tinkles unfortunately in the distant background. But the fugues in the Kyrie have a marvellous sense of transparency and clarity of line. The Kyrie fugues are slower than I would have liked, but Karajan balances choir and orchestra well and you never lose the sense of structure in the fugue. Important lines (whether choral or orchestral) are always clear.
The Gloria opens in a fine crisp, marcato manner and the speed is suitably brisk; forces are fined down for the fugue; no sense of overblown 19th century symphonic tradition here. But, in the Qui tollis the choir are encouraged to sing with hushed tones in a very 19th century manner and most movements end with a very traditional sounding rit. For the Cum Sancto spiritu chorus, the final movement of the Gloria, Karajan sets a brisk speed and the choir are encouraged to sing in a very detached/marcato manner. But it is here that I must admit that the recording does have strong drawbacks. The chorus just cannot cope with Karajan’s demands. Singing the passage-work in a detached manner, though a technique that has become common, does not come easily to them and it sounds enormously mannered and not a little untidy. They cannot always cope with Karajan’s speeds and he makes no allowances. So, for instance, the opening two choruses of the Credo are very untidy. The choir are rather challenged by the speed of the et resurrexit and the Confiteor unam baptisma choruses. The openings of both choruses are, quite frankly, untidy messes, but once the chorus settles down they respond pretty well to the challenge. In the Sanctus, Karajan returns to the more massive sound of the Kyrie.
In a number of movements the singers take some time to get used to Karajan’s speeds and in the Laudamus Te movement he has a positive fight with Schwarzkopf. But generally, the solo movements are the most enjoyable, even though none of the soloists is strictly a Bach stylist. Walter Ludwig sounds a little pushed by the tessitura of the tenor part, particularly in the Domine Deus duet with Schwarzkopf. But, realistically, of the soloists, Ludwig’s voice type is probably furthest from that which Bach envisaged; Ludwig is very much a 19th / 20th century operatic tenor and it is to his credit that he negotiates Bach’s lines with such skill. Schwarzkopf and Ferrier respond well to the room Karajan gives them, by providing such a delicate accompaniment, in the Et in Unim Dominum duet in the Credo. In the Benedictus, Ludwig is on better form but his creditable performance is knocked into a cocked hat by Ferrier’s performance in the Agnus Dei. If this set is of more than historical interest it is because of this glorious track. Taken at a stupendously slow tempo, Ferrier shows little sign of strain and gives a luminous performance which manages to transcend all questions of historical performance practice; it is for such moments that we need to listen to such recordings with an open mind.
Some of these movements (including the Agnus Dei) have appeared on previous issues of Karajan’s 1952 studio recording of the Mass (with solos and choruses recorded in two different cities) and Ferrier’s Agnus Dei is really the principal reason for hearing this recording. If your principal interest is the Karajan ‘Mass in B minor’ then my advice would be to get one of the recent reissues of his 1952 recording which have some of the excerpts (particularly the Agnus Dei) from this live recording included as a bonus.
But for those interested in Ferrier’s art the set has more treats in store; notably her 1949 broadcast of the Brahms ‘Four Serious Songs’ with Sir Malcolm Sargent and two recitals. One is from Oslo from 1949 and one from London in 1952. The ‘Four Serious Songs’ are sung in English with orchestrations by Sir Malcolm Sargent. Though Ferrier is vividly communicative in these lovely, sombre works, I did miss the sense of quiet intensity that she could have brought to the version with piano accompaniment.
The Oslo recital enables us to hear a lovely group of Wolf songs sung in German and is beautifully communicative. These are preceded by a Purcell song and two Handel arias. These latter are sung in English but given in full with their Da Capo. Again Ferrier convinces with her artistry in a performance which is some distance from current practices.
In the London recording we hear Ferrier in a fine group of songs by contemporary and nearly contemporary composers. The recital opens with a beautifully shaped performance of Jensen’s ‘Altar’ sung in Norwegian. The care and beauty of tone that she brings to the Stanford and Parry songs belies the low regard history has assigned to them; and the songs repay her care amply. These are followed by Vaughan Williams’ ‘Silent Noon’ sung with great beauty of tone and line. Warlock’s hauntingly sung ‘Sleep’ is followed by his ‘Pretty ring time’ charmingly sung with a smile in the voice. The recital concludes with a pair of folk song arrangements. In the second, ‘Kitty my love’, Ferrier even adopts a discreet regional accent.
With an artist like Ferrier, whose recording career was so short, there is a tendency for all surviving recordings to acquire iconic status whether they deserve it or no. Luckily, with an artist like Ferrier, nearly all of her recordings are worth hearing.