> Ethyl Smyth Vols 1-4 [RB]: Classical Reviews- May2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ethel SMYTH (1858-1944)
The Troubadisc Chamber Music and Lieder cycle
Four Volumes:-
Volume 1 and 2 TRO-CD 03 (2CDs)
Volume 3 TRO-CD 01405
Volume 4 TRO-CD 01417
Volume 1

Violin Sonata op. 7 (1887) [27.08]
String Quintet op. 1 (1883) [26.58]
Volume 2

Cello Sonata op. 5 (1887) [20.42]
String Quartet in e minor (1902, 1912) [38.12]
Renate Eggebrecht-Kupsa (violin) (violin sonata)
Friedemann Kupsa (cello) (cello sonata)
Céline Dutilly (piano) (sonatas)
Fanny Mendelssohn String Quartet (quartet and quintet)
Johanna Varner (cello) (quintet only)
rec 6, 7, 13, 14 Aug 1990; 1, 12, 13 Nov 1990, Studio 3 des Bayerischen Rundfunks, München, Germany ADD
TROUBADISC TRO-CD 03 [2CDs: 54.33+59.20]
Volume 3

Four Songs for mezzo and chamber ensemble (1907) [20.20]:
Odelette; La Danse; Chrysilla; Ode Anacréontique
Three Songs for mezzo and piano (1913) [14.06]:
The Clown; Possession; On the Road
Double Concerto for violin, horn and piano (1926) [26.24]
Melinda Paulsen (mezzo) (all songs)
Ensemble: Ulrike Siebler (flute); Renate Eggebrecht-Kupsa (violin); Georgi Georgiev (viola); Friedemann Kupsa (cello); Corinna Zirkelbach (harp); Alexander Gotowtschikow (percussion); Johannes Schmeller (ltg)
Angela Gassenhuber (piano) (Three Songs)
Renate Eggebrecht-Kupsa (violin); Franz Draxinger (horn); Céline Dutilly (piano); (Double Concerto)
rec 1, 2 May, 7, 8, 28 July 1992, Bauer Studios, Ludwigsburg, Germany DD
TROUBADISC TRO-CD 01405 [61.37]

Volume 4

Five Lieder Op. 4 for baritone and piano (1877) [15.27]:
Tanzlied (Büchner); Schlummerlied (v. Wildenbruch); Mittagsruh (v. Eichendorff); Nachreiter (Groth); Nachtgedanken (Heyse)
Five Songs Op. 4 for baritone and piano [13.22] (1877)
Vom Berge; Der verirrte Jäger; Bei eine Linde; Es wandelt was wir schauen; Schön Rohraut (all v. Eichendorff apart from last song which is Mörike)
Cello Sonata in c minor (1880) [26.11]
Three Moods of the Sea for baritone and piano (1913) [11.40]:
Requies; Before the Squall; After Sunset (all Arthur Symons)
rec 27, 28 Mar, 1, 2 Oct 1997, Bauer Studios, Ludwigsburg, Germany, DDD
TROUBADISC TRO-CD 01417 [67.53]

Troubadisc's four volume Ethel Smyth project began in the late 1980s. It came to its first harvest in 1991 with the issue of a double CD set - volumes 1 and 2. The tapes used for that first set were late analogue although when hearing these ADD recordings, as I am now, hiss is to my ears, non-existent.

In 1992 came a fully digital volume 3 with songs (in French and English) partnering a chamber trio version of the Double Concerto. This came out four or five years before the Chandos CD which displays the Concerto in its full glowing orchestral colours. Then came volume 4 with the 1880 cello sonata and a selection of lieder and a song-cycle to words by Arthur Symons.

Smyth was born in Kent on 23 April 1938 into a military family. In 1877 she went to Leipzig to study with Jadassohn and Reinecke. She had some private tuition from Herzogenberg. The 1880s saw a burst of chamber music production. In the 1890s her orchestral Serenade and overture Antony and Cleopatra (the inspiration of another resolute woman from history?) were heard at Manns' Crystal Palace concerts and at Henschel's series.

Opera became a major fixation of hers. The first was Fantasio produced at Weimar (1898) and Carlsruhe under Felix Mottl. Der Wald was given in Dresden in 1901 and then in Berlin in 1902. The Wreckers (known in German as Standrecht) has been recorded by Conifer although currently languishing in deletion purgatory. It had prestige performances in Leipzig (1908), Prague (1908), Vienna (1908) and London (Walter and Beecham, 1909, 1910). It was revived at Sadlers Wells in 1939 when the composer had been deaf for six or more years and had only another five to live.

The Boatswain's Mate (a two-acter whose overture has occasionally surfaced in broadcast concerts) was conducted by the composer in London's Shaftesbury Theatre on 28 January 1916. Her one-acter Fête Galante (subtitled A Dance Dream) was produced in Birmingham and London (both 1923). In 1925 Entente Cordiale was produced at the Royal College of Music and then publicly at the Theatre Royal, Bristol. Smyth was published both by Breitkopfs and by Universal.

From the above one can trace the downward trajectory of her reputation. Pre-Great War she was assured of international premieres. After 1918 she increasingly had to struggle for London premieres ... at least for her operas. In this she was of that generation ground under by the Great War - a generation that also included Bantock and the grievously neglected, if personally irascible, Joseph Holbrooke.

Sir Henry Wood was the dedicatee of the Concerto for violin, horn and orchestra. He conducted its premiere with the soloists Jelly d'Aranyi and Aubrey Brain (father of Dennis). This was on 5 March 1927. It was dedicated to 'Henry Wood the best friend of English Music'. By a curious twist of history Smyth died in the same year as Wood. Her 65 minute Symphony The Prison (one of the major lacunae in the catalogue of recorded music) was given its first London outing on 24 February 1931 when it was conducted by Boult. It was premiered in Edinburgh on 19 February 1931 at the Tovey concerts. 'The Prison' in question has little if anything to do with the prison in which she was incarcerated for her suffragette activities. Rather it refers to the bars and constraints that hem in and suppress the divine within each human being. In this there is perhaps something of Wordsworth's 'shades of the prison-house' which stifle the innocence of childhood (see Finzi's setting of Intimations of Immortality).

Smyth wrote a major series of memoirs although their literary character now makes them suitable for a determined read rather than a casual one. These were published by Longmans: Streaks of Life (1921), As Time Went On (1935), What Happened Next (1940). Other books with autobiographical material include A Three-Legged Tour in Greece (1927), A Final Burning of Boats (1928), Female Pipings in Eden (1933), Beecham and Pharaoh (1935) and Inordinate (?) Affection (for dog lovers) (1939).

Writing in the early 1920s Eaglefield-Hull said that her string quartets and quintets 'follow Brahms so closely that only here and there, if at all, does her own personality come through.' This is too severe a judgement. We can hear what he means in the op. 1 String Quintet which was premiered with many of the other chamber works at the Abonnement concerts at Leipzig. However there are other voices. For example Beethoven in the scherzo of the Quintet; Mendelssohn and Dvořák elsewhere. Her ideas are of strong quality; they are not diminished by being expressed in something which closely trails the musical conventions of the time. The little adagio of the Op. 1 with its polyphony, Bachian concentration and lovely restraint is an inspired piece of work. It touches on the same spirituality as Schubert's Quintet and would pair well with that work.

The Op. 7 Violin Sonata has a warm sense of fantasy. It is written in an argot that has distinct elements of Brahms in its fieriness and Dvořák in its introspective meditation. The third movement has that hiccuping liberation from care you find in the American Quartet of Dvořák. That movement is well called Romance. The work was premiered by Schumann pupil, Fanny Davies, with Adolf Brodsky in Leipzig and then with Edith Robinson in London.

The String Quintet has the fresh bucolic breeziness (Mendelssohn's Octet and Dvořák) blowing through its pages. This reminded me of the chamber music of another composer - Charles Wakefield Cadman. Cadman's Naxos collection is alive with ideas yet again written within the same set of 'linguistic rules' that makes the music of Dvořák and Brahms recognisable. Smyth has real ideas, ideas that give renewal and emotional reward. Try the Bachian molten silver of the little andantino. There is also a smiling scherzo.

The Op. 5 Cello Sonata is in the Brahmsian manner; the most virile and convincing in this company. Certainly it stands above the violin sonata of the same year. The adagio non troppo is the movement to sample. In the first few bars of the allegro vivace the cellist Friedemann Kupsa's suddenly shifts recording perspective and this happens again at 1.58. This is momentarily disorientating for the listener. The sonata is dedicated to Julius Klengel who was one of the players at the premiere of the String Quintet. It was performed on 8 December 1926 in London by May Fussell with Kathleen Long.

The 1902/1912 String Quartet (no opus number) breaks from the Dvořák-Brahms axis and strikes out in a more severe direction. The romantic era is still there but this is disrupted or lent savour by an expressionistic element which reminded me of early Weill, of Reger and of Pfitzner. It reaches outwards towards the haunted world of Karl Weigl. The last movement seems to step into unknown regions occasionally pointing towards Bartók in its brusque, gusty and jerky dance quality. The quartet was premiered by its dedicatees, the London Quartet, on 3 December 1914. The London then comprised Albert Sammons, Thomas Petre, H. Waldo Warner and Warwick Evans. It was published by Universal Edition, Vienna, in 1914 but future prospects of European mainland publication were already clouded and the sun had set over her international reputation.

One of the things that makes the Troubadisc project so pleasing is the historical symmetry of a situation where music that in many cases began its life in Germany now owes its recorded revival to a Munich-based German label.

The voice becomes an issue in the last two volumes. Volume 3 starts with a set of Four Songs - Mélodies really - these are not lieder. That these are settings of the French poetry is only part of the picture. The instrumental group has elysian roles for the harp and the flute. The balance is perfect - wonderfully colourful and egalitarian too. The voice is not preferred over the other instruments. In the first song there is also a place for the side-drum - a tactful voice too! The four songs stand between the Brahmsian melos of the Leipzig works of the 1880s and the sparer almost disturbing textures of the String Quartet (which appears at the end of the second volume). In La Danse the percussionist takes up the tambourine and the triangle. This is a most extraordinary cycle and lovers of French song must hear this. Melinda Paulsen is warm of voice and takes trouble with the words. I also single out Ulrike Siebler for the similar warmth she brings to this richly rewarding work full of imaginative instrumental detailing. The style is like a mélange of Berlioz Nuits d'Été, Chausson's songs and maybe a dash of Wagner. Certainly Smyth leaves Brahmsian 'trifles' way behind. You would never have guessed that this was by the same composer who wrote the four works in volumes 1 and 2. Though nowhere nearly so ecstatic one can also hear where George Butterworth, in his song cycle Love Blows as the Wind Blows, might have picked up some ambience.

The cycle which plays for about twenty minutes is dedicated to Madame Bulteau. It was given its first performance conducted by the composer Emil von Reznicek. The singer was Elsie Swinton and the ensemble was from the News Symphony Orchestra. In 1922 one of the songs was played at the ISCM festival in Salzburg sharing (without a blush I would have said) the same programme as a work by Arthur Bliss. The poems are by Henri de Régnier (1864-1936).

The Three Songs of 1913 are settings for piano and mezzo of one poem by Maurice Baring and two by the completely forgotten Ethel Carnie. The style now changes again taking us much closer to the oblique tonality of the String Quartet. Melinda Paulsen (born in Indiana but singing without a trace of obtrusive accent) is the singer again. This time she sings in English and some of the shaping of the words (especially vowel sounds) suffers though her breath control is phenomenal ... and admirably steady of production. The songs are akin to the more serious ones by Lord Berners (see my site review of the Symposium collection). The last two songs are dedicated, one each, to Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst.

The words of the seven songs in this volume are printed in the original language and in translation into German. I noticed one or two typos and wondered about the disparity between the printed word and the words sung in The Clown, Paulsen for example sings 'my heart' but the booklet has 'my hands'. On the Road (the last song) is to what Smyth calls 'a marching tune' - but nothing like Holst's. There is nothing jaunty or cheerful about this. This is a militant and bloodthirsty setting and the words (again afflicted with typos here and there) are to match. The fractured and unexpected tonality gives us a song fitting the bloodletting to come only a year later. This has something of the warlike tread of various British Housman settings: Butterworth, John Ireland and C.W. Orr. The final twist is a flourished part-quote from her suffragette March of the Women. I am not quite sure whether she intended this to be a serious hymn to conflict or a satirical sally.

Lastly, on this disc, we get the Horn Trio version of her only Concerto. This version was made by the composer and was surely intended to give the concerto the 'legs' to travel far further than the original version with orchestra would have allowed. Renate Eggebrecht-Kupsa's violin searches poignantly and with a faintly nasal tone through the texture. The horn is balanced slightly backwardly to avoid the usual recording hazards associated with his far from reticent instrument. Franz Draxinger's warm playing comes to the fore in the In Memoriam - Elegy. The pianist is Céline Dutilly (a welcome protagonist in the first three Troubadisc volumes) who does the same service in the sonatas for violin and cello. The lovely liquid ebb and flow of the Elegy is extremely well carried off and I dare to say that the effect registers with far more clarity here than in either of the two other recordings of the original orchestral version (Chandos and Koch Classics). The finale halloos and gallops along in fox-hunting scarlet.

The Concerto is far more emotional and classically informed than the String Quartet and the Three Songs. The finale also has episodes with a wraith-like smoky wistfulness which look back with a tear - quizzical and fearful.

The personnel roster changes almost completely for the last and most recent volume. Kelvin Grout takes the piano part for the nine lieder opp. 3 and 4 and for the English song-cycle to words by Arthur Symons, a poet favoured by Delius. Grout is a caring partner who can comfortably span from the sort of moonlit quietude found in Schlummerlied to darker moments. The welcoming fireside heartland is Schubert. Nachreiter might almost be a sketch for a Mahler song, say from Lieder eines fahrenden gesellen. The Op. 3 set, which comes after the Op. 4 on the disc, is titled Lieder und Balladen although the emotional landscape is much the same. These are all quite straightforwardly fluent examples of lieder with many magical moments along the way (try Bei einer Linde). Koningsberger, apart from having to conquer a tendency towards tremulous tone, is well under the skin of these songs. A pleasure to hear. Lieder fanciers must not miss this.

Dividing these songs of the German romantic soul from the mid-period cycle Three Moods of the Sea is the Leipzig era Cello Sonata. This one is in C minor; a different work from the A minor work in the volume 2 set. Firmly absorbed into Brahmsian generosity of heart it is a strong work in its own right and receives a deeply passionate and sensitive performance. Friedemann Kupsa's cello playing glows with conviction. Some may have difficulty with the heavy breathing as others do with the rattle of keys in an oboe work. For myself this only serves to root this sincerely soulful work in vulnerable humanity. The sonata would pair well with the John Foulds and York Bowen sonatas. It goes superbly well and along the way has some surprising coaxing and comforting references to the Dvořák Cello Concerto.

After his, to my ears, idiomatic contribution to the lieder I wondered what Koningsberger's English would be like. My fears were misplaced. His pronunciation is not thickly accented. Rather like the consummately admirable Melinda Paulsen in volume 3 he is the soul of clarity - a touch of the baritones readers in the UK may already know - a sort of halfway house between Stephen Savidge and Brian Rayner Cook. Try track 16 and listen to the way Koningsberger rolls and emphasises the words "ridge after rocky ridge".

The three songs themselves date from Smyth's haunted expressionist middle-period. Here she left behind the Brahms-Dvořák axis and launched out into the eerieness and Caligari dreamscapes of John Foulds, Berners, Bridge and Bernard van Dieren. Kelvin Grout is well attuned to the awed restlessness of this music which took a rich and strange turning away from the mainstream of English song.

Maarten Koningsberger is the baritone for all of the songs. His voice is in sturdy health.

The notes for this series are in German only until we get to volume 4 when the text is in both German and a very good English translation.

The playing throughout is admirable and everyone gives the impression, not merely of dedication to Smyth as a symbol, but to her music which has great warmth and worth.

Ethel Smyth, an enigmatic composer with much more to her music than the amusing caricatures about her left by others - usually men. Early works: Brahmsian. Mid-period: transition via Gallic interlude to the Pierrot expressionist style of the Three Songs and the Quartet. Later period - a return to Brahmsian manner but lightened with 'modern' gestures. Now who will record her choral symphony The Prison?

The Troubadisc series is invaluable with some surprising pleasures as well as some predictably joyous inspirations.
Rob Barnett



You should have no difficulty ordering these but if you do have problems then please contact me via the site. Don't forget the other CDs in the Troubadisc range: Reger, Milhaud, Bliss and Bacewicz.

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