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Kathleen Ferrier (contralto)
20th Century British Treasures
Frederick Stone, Phyllis Spurr, Ernest Lush (piano)
Anna Pollak (mezzo-soprano)
English Opera Group Orchestra/Reginald Goodall
London Symphony Orchestra/Hugo Rignold
rec. 1946-1953. AAD
Texts included
SOMM ARIADNE 5010 [79:15]

In my experience, SOMM’s documentation is usually extremely good. However, with this release I think they have achieved something of a coup. The booklet includes short comments by the sons of Edmund Rubbra, Michael Berkeley and Julian Jacobson on the pieces written by their respective fathers. I think Julian Jacobson’s contribution was written specially for this release; the other two are excerpted from Paul Campion’s book Ferrier – A Career Recorded (2005). But valuable though those contributions are, for me the real prize here is the main booklet essay. SOMM have secured the services of Sir Thomas Allen, no less; I’ve found it fascinating to read his commentaries on Kathleen Ferrier’s performances which, of course, give us the benefit of one distinguished singer’s insights into the art of another. Allen’s essay is excellent and I’ve learned much from it.

The title of the disc includes the word ‘treasures’ and that’s not an over-statement. Not only are the performances here of exceptional quality but also, we can hear Ferrier in some valuable, unfamiliar repertoire. In this context, the items by Rubbra, Wordsworth and Ferguson may be counted as being of particular interest. All are taken from a BBC recital given on 12 February 1953 in which she was accompanied by Ernest Lush. In fact, this was to be Ferrier’s last broadcast or recording; she died on 8 October 1953. The three psalm settings were written for her by Rubbra in 1947 and they deserve to be much better known. In Psalm 6, ‘O Lord, rebuke me not’ the intensity of the vocal line is emphasised by the deep commitment that Ferrier brings to her singing. There follows a setting of Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’. There’s real conviction in Rubbra’s setting and that is reflected in a fervent yet controlled performance by Ferrier. Finally, in Psalm 150, ‘Praise ye the Lord’ this gifted singer is suitably joyful in her delivery.

I’ve heard several symphonies by William Wordsworth but, to the best of my recollection, none of his songs. I don’t know when he composed his Three Songs, Op 5 but Paul Conway’s detailed survey of the composer’s major pieces references his Sinfonia in A minor, for string orchestra, Op.6 (1939) so it may well be that the songs date from around the same time. I admired all three songs and Ferrier does them really well. I especially enjoyed the last song, ‘Clouds’, which sets a poem by Rupert Brooke. The setting is slow and atmospheric and Ferrier’s performance is rapt. She’s equally successful in Howard Ferguson’s Discovery. This is a cycle of four short settings of poems by the English poet and painter, Denton Welch. There’s a bit of confusion in the booklet over his dates but I believe I’m right in saying that he was born in 1915 and died in 1948. These are good songs. The second of them, ‘Babylon’ demands – and here receives – great control on the part of the singer. Ferrier and Ernest Lush convey a real sense of stillness in the music. Control is also required in the fourth song, ‘Discovery’ and once again we find Ferrier completely equal to the task. It’s great to hear her in these songs.

Many of the items earlier on the disc are much better known. The Quilter group comes from a set of Decca recordings made in December 1951. Now sleeps the Crimson Petal receives a treasurable, sincere performance. I greatly admire the way Ferrier gives herself plenty of time to articulate the words and spin the vocal line. The rapturous Fair House of Joy is one of my favourite English songs. Ferrier’s dedicated performance is memorable. She takes great care over both words and music without ever sounding studied. I was moved by hearing her sing it.

In describing the performance of Silent Noon, Thomas Allen refers to one passage in which the atmosphere created by Ferrier “holds you in its gentle grasp”. To be honest, that felicitous phrase could apply to her rendition of the entire song. She takes the song quite slowly and gives herself all the time in the world to put it across without ever sacrificing the line. This is exquisite singing.

I’m glad to find some Stanford songs on the menu. The first two stem from a BBC recital from June 1952. The other one, La belle dame sans merci, which I think is less successful as a performance – it’s too careful early on – is from a February 1948 BBC recital. The Fairy Lough is charming. Not only that, it’s a performance that offers superb dynamics. Equally impressive dynamic control is in evidence for A Soft Day. This is another of those performances in which Ferrier seems to have all the time in the world to weave her vocal spell; it’s a lovely performance of what, on paper at least, is a very simple song.

The two Warlock items also come from that June 1952 recital. I must confess that I’ve always thought Ivor Gurney’s setting of Sleep is finer than Warlock’s. I still do, but the excellence of Ferrier’s rendition almost convinces me otherwise. Thomas Allen hits the nail on the head in saying that in Warlock’s hands John Fletcher’s poem “is given a lovely Tudor period slowness of courtly line”; that’s exactly what we experience here.

There are two items in which Ferrier is accompanied by orchestra. Benjamin Britten conceived the role of Lucretia for her. This tantalisingly short extract from The Rape of Lucretia was well worth including. Ferrier owns the music and, frankly, nothing more need be said. Lennox Berkeley wrote his masterly Four Poems of St Teresa of Avila for Kathleen Ferrier. There is at least one other performance by her in the catalogue already, a 1949 account conducted by Barbirolli (review). However, this present performance here receives its first commercial release. It’s a BBC broadcast from April 1952 with Hugo Rignold conducting the strings of the LSO. Ferrier’s voice is foregrounded in the recording but we can still hear enough of the orchestral contribution to know that Rignold and the LSO partner her very effectively. Ferrier was in very fine voice for this performance and she communicates words and music vividly. She’s ardent in the opening song ‘If, Lord, thy love for me is strong’ and to the third song, ‘Let mine eyes see Thee’ she brings an exceptional focus of tone and line. Here, as elsewhere, the words are ideally enunciated. This is, I believe, the most beautiful of the four songs and Ferrier brings real eloquence to it.

This is a superb collection of performances. I don’t know what sources have been used but Norman White has restored and remastered the recordings with great success. Throughout the programme we can hear Ferrier’s glorious voice in all its purity and radiance. All the texts are provided but her diction is so clear that the printed texts are almost redundant. Mind you, her pronunciation could be delightfully idiosyncratic on occasion, as Thomas Allen points out: for example, in the first of the three Rubbra psalm settings, the word “death” is pronounced “dayth”. Such minor details matter not: what matters is the wonderful quality of the voice and the deep sincerity of the interpretations. I should add that Ferrier is well served by all her accompanists.

For Ferrier admirers this CD will be a mandatory purchase but, in truth, anyone who values great singing should put it at the top of their shopping list. We shall not see or hear her like again, and with this disc SOMM have given us another marvellous reminder of the art of Kathleen Ferrier.

John Quinn

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry
Love is a bable (English Lyrics Set 6 No 3.)
Roger Quilter
Now sleeps the Crimson Petal op.3 no.2
To Daisies (To Julia, op.8 no.3)
Fair House of Joy
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Silent Noon (The House of Life)
Sir Charles Villiers Stanford
The Fairy Lough (An Irish idyll in six miniatures, op.77)
A soft day, op.140 no.3
La belle dame sans merci
Frank Bridge
Go not, happy day, H34
Peter Warlock
Pretty Ring Time
Maurice Jacobson
The Song of Songs
Edmund Rubbra
Three Psalms, op.61
William Wordsworth
Three Songs, Op 5
Howard Ferguson
Discovery, op.13
Benjamin Britten
The Flower Song (The Rape of Lucretia, op.37)
Sir Lennox Berkeley
Four Poems of St Teresa of Avila, op.27



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