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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.