Lost and found: Diva's 'Four Poems' to be aired 50 years after her death

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The Independent Culture

A lost first recording by British contralto Kathleen Ferrier, made shortly before she died of cancer, has been rediscovered in time to commemorate the 50th anniversary of her death.

The recording, the Four Poems of St Teresa of Avila, is an important work by the British composer Lennox Berkeley, whose birth centenary is also being marked this year.

It was made by the BBC the day after the work's premiere at the Royal Festival Hall in London in April 1952, and will be broadcast on Radio 3 on Wednesday.

Ms Ferrier was a telephone operator from Blackburn who won the nation's heart by becoming a star at Covent Garden, despite no formal training. Benjamin Britten wrote the title role of his opera The Rape of Lucretia for her, and she made numerous recordings. She died in 1953, aged 41, just a year older than English soprano Susan Chilcott, whose death from cancer last month saddened the opera world.

Mr Berkeley's son, Michael Berkeley, a broadcaster and composer, said he was delighted at the discovery of the Four Poems recording and staggered by its clarity.

"It's one of my father's masterpieces," he said. "One of the great sadnesses was there was no extant recording by her. I always thought Ferrier was the ideal voice for the pieces and you can hear that it is."

He said that the discovered piece was the most significant lost recording of all his father's repertoire. "All other pieces have had subsequent recordings that are almost better than the early ones," he said, "but nobody had ever come close to what I imagined Ferrier was like. This is an historical recording of huge interest because she's such a legend."

The recording came to light during preparations for a special evening of Ms Ferrier's music on Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of her death.

Previous searches had been made through the archives but to no avail. Only now has it emerged that a former BBC sound restoration engineer, Ted Kendall, had copied a disc containing the recording during his work in the archives 20 years ago. He told managers but the significance was not realised.

The original disc, not catalogued and, therefore, effectively unknown, has subsequently disappeared.

But when Paul Campion, a Ferrier biographer, appealed for information on missing parts of her catalogue, the lost recording came to light.

Mr Kendall, who keeps a copy of all works he restores, said Ms Ferrier was the kind of artist you paid particular attention to if a recording came to light.

"She still has this iconic status," he said. "Every contralto has looked up to Ferrier ever since".

The Four Poems of St Teresa of Avila will be broadcast as part of the BBC Radio 3 evening dedicated to Ms Ferrier from 7.30pm to 11pm.

The Four Poems are due to be recorded later this year by Alice Coote, the British mezzo-soprano, whose voice has prompted comparisons with Ms Ferrier's. Michael Berkeley hopes the newly discovered recording will be released on disc for fans of his father's works.

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