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Dame Ethel SMYTH (1858-1944)
Overture to The Wreckers (1902-04) [9:14]
Mass in D (1891, rev. 1925) [61:24]
Susanna Hurrell (soprano); Catriona Morison (mezzo-soprano); Ben Johnson (tenor); Duncan Rock (baritone)
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. 2019, Watford Colosseum, UK
Latin text & English translation included

Dame Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D is a work with which, until recently, I was only acquainted through a CD recording conducted by Philip Brunelle. Then in 2018 the Three Choirs Festival put on a performance, fulfilling a long-held ambition of Geraint Bowen, the Artistic Director of that year’s festival in Hereford. I attended that performance and though I had several reservations about the work itself, I admired the commitment of the performance led by Mr Bowen (review). That Three Choirs performance was a pretty rare outing for the work but, wouldn’t you know it, only a matter of months later the forces involved in this present recording performed it live in London’s Barbican, an occasion at which my colleague Colin Clarke was present (review). Actually, that last statement isn’t quite true: there was one important difference between that concert and this recording in that Sakari Oramo was unable to appear at the Barbican and Martyn Brabbins deputised. However, by the time of the recording sessions, Oramo was restored to the rostrum. I think I’m right in saying that the concert performance was one of the events at which the BBC Symphony Chorus, founded in 1928, celebrated its 90th birthday.

What I believe was the work’s first recording was made in the USA by The Plymouth Festival Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Philip Brunelle in early 1990. Since then, there has been another recording of the Mass: it’s by the Wurttembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen and Philharmonia Chor Stuttgart under Helmut Wolf (Audite AUDITE97448) but I haven’t heard it and we don’t appear to have reviewed it on MusicWeb International.

As well as the Mass, Sakari Oramo offers the overture to Smyth’s third opera, The Wreckers. I’ve never heard the opera, though I recall that a complete recording was issued (by Conifer?) a good few years ago, conducted by Odaline de la Martinez, who subsequently made a recording of Smyth’s fourth opera, The Boatswain’s Mate (review). I have heard the overture to The Wreckers, however, as it crops up very occasionally as a standalone item. On the evidence of this colourful and thoroughly enjoyable performance by Oramo and the BBCSO it ought to be heard more often. It’s a fine opener to this disc.

The Mass was completed in 1891. I was interested to learn from Laura Tunbridge’s booklet essay that during the late 1880s Ethel Smyth spent quite a lot of time in Europe. She studyied for a while at the Leipzig Conservatoire, though that was not a successful episode in her life. One of the other cities she visited was Munich where, encouraged by the conductor Herman Levi, she attended concerts of music by Wagner and Beethoven. Apparently, one work which impressed her was Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. Helped by patronage from her friend, the Empress Eugénie of France, who had connections with the British royal family, Smyth secured a premiere for her Mass in London by the Royal Choral Society in 1893. I was amused to read that on the same programme as this hour-long Mass setting was the not inconsiderable matter of Haydn’s The Creation: audiences sure liked value for money in those days! The work was not heard again until 1924 when Boult conducted it in Birmingham and London. I know that Dame Ethel herself conducted two movements from the Mass at the 1925 Three Choirs Festival and in 1928 she returned to the Festival to conduct the entire work. How frequently it has been performed since then, I don’t know; not that often, I suspect.

As I said in my review of the 2018 Three Choirs concert, my reaction to that performance was mixed. In particular, I found that lengthy sections of the Kyrie, Credo and Gloria were unremittingly loud. These long stretches of loud music were wearing and also created a structural problem in that because the loud passages were so extended the score seemed to contain few genuine climaxes. Of course, that was a one-off live performance whereas what we’re now considering is a recording made under studio conditions. My experience of the Oramo performance is much more favourable as regards the music because he finds much more light and shade in the score than I recall hearing in the 2018 performance I attended.

Mind you, I may not be the only person who has regarded the Mass as too loud at a first live hearing. I was amused to read in the booklet that after the premiere the then Archbishop of Canterbury opined that in the Kyrie “God was not implored, but commanded to have mercy”. The Kyrie begins impressively with a hushed choral fugue, initiated by the basses. It’s a mysterious opening from which the music gradually builds in intensity until by about 2:00 choir and orchestra is going at full tilt. Strong, muscular music tends to predominate until at 6:10 the orchestra leads into a much softer and quite effective section. This subdued vein persists until the end of the movement. Though the performance is often fervent, Oramo and his forces make the most of dynamic contrasts to present an imposing account of this opening movement. That said, I do wonder if Smyth might have used soloists at some point in the Kyrie just for variety. I compared the new Oramo performance with the 1990 Brunelle version. That performance has much to commend it, as one would expect from so distinguished a choral conductor. However, the recording, made in Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, is somewhat more distantly balanced. As a result, the sound lacks the impact of the Chandos recording and the performers don’t project the music as strongly as do Oramo and his team. Brunelle’s choir and orchestra are good, but they’re not quite at the same level of accomplishment as the BBC forces, I think.

Unusually, the composer specifies in the score that the Gloria, rather than following the Kyrie, as is customary, should be performed last. Therefore, we next hear the Credo. This movement starts jubilantly and the music seems initially to carry definite echoes of the Missa Solemnis. Brunelle, with more distanced recorded sound and possibly using a smaller choir, can’t match the punch of Oramo’s version in these pages. At 2:15 (‘Qui propter nos homines’) we hear a solo voice for the first time; it’s the tenor. His entry heralds a more relaxed passage of music in which the solo soprano, partnered by a solo violin, has gently radiant music which is beautifully done here. The passage at ‘et homo factus est’ is for chorus and orchestra, the music mainly hushed and effective. ‘Et resurrexit’ (7:53) is exultant. A little later on, Smyth slightly modifies the words, having the solo quartet slowly and softly sing the words ‘Credo in Spiritum Sanctum' in alliance with the solo violin (9:37). Towards the end of the movement Smyth is unable to resist the temptation of a choral fugue at ‘Et vitam venturi’ (13:45); this is mostly big, strong music, though there are some welcome contrasting moments. Eventually, Oramo and his forces sweep to a confident, blazing conclusion which, once again, invokes the spirit of Beethoven.

When I heard the work live, I said that the next three movements – Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei - were the best in the work. Though Oramo’s account has raised the other movements higher in my estimation, I stand by that judgement. The Sanctus is for alto solo supported by the female voices of the choir. Catriona Morison is most appealing, her tone round and pleasing; she invests the music with dignity. By comparison, Brunelle’s soloist seems rather plain of utterance though the choral voices are sweet and ethereal – perhaps the less full-on recorded sound helps at this point. The full choir is involved for the ‘Hosanna; which Oramo ensures is suitably majestic. This is the one passage in the movement that is not subdued in volume and mood.

Another soloist – the soprano – takes centre stage in the Benedictus. Here Smyth’s delicate scoring is a delight to hear. So, too, is the singing of Susanna Hurrell. Like her rival on the Brunelle set, Eiddwen Harrhy, Miss Hurrell is very expressive. The soloist in the Agnus Dei is the tenor and Ben Johnson does very well in what is often an impassioned prayer for mercy. He gets full-blooded support from the BBC Symphony Chorus. Smyth’s music is powerful in spirit, even when the volume is reduced.

Dame Ethel was explicit in her request that the Gloria should be heard last. The start is full-on and jubilant, offering yet another reminiscence of Beethoven. Oramo’s performance has an abundance of energy. For all it’s a good performance, the Brunelle account can’t match the thrill of the opening on Chandos; for one thing, the recording itself generates less excitement. The soloists are deployed at ‘Et in terra pax’ and their lyrical and relaxed episode is based upon a particularly memorable melodic idea. However, when the chorus becomes involved again their contribution is powerful and affirmative. The bass soloist has his most important passage in the work so far at ‘Domine Fili unigenite’ (6:03) and Duncan Rock does very well. He’s soon joined by the alto soloist; both sing well in this eloquent passage. These two soloists are involved again at ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’. The tenor has a short, tranquil solo (‘Jesu Christe’) which Ben Johnson does nicely. At the words ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’, many Mass composers, seeing the finish line of the Gloria in sight, provide fast and joyful music but Smyth initially follows a different path: these words are set as a tranquil and radiant alto solo, engagingly delivered by the impressive Catriona Morison. It’s only when that rather lovely moment has passed that the choir takes over exultantly (14:44) as the Mass in D enters the home stretch. The last pages contain a heaven-storming major-key ending in which the impact on Smyth of the Missa Solemnis is once again evident. Oramo galvanises his chorus and orchestra to bring the work to an exciting conclusion.

This very fine and often exciting performance of Ethel Smyth’s Mass has been something of an epiphany for me. I still wouldn’t place it in the foremost rank of British choral/orchestral works but Sakari Oramo and his team have made me appreciate its qualities far more, as well as reinforcing the favourable view I’d already formed of some parts of the work. In particular, the dynamic contrasts that Oramo finds and insists on in this performance show the work in a different and much more attractive light. As a result, not only do the quiet passages make their mark properly but the louder sections have more impact when they occur. I can’t comment on the Audite performance, referenced above, but this new Chandos release comfortably supersedes the Brunelle version. Though I doubt that many more concert performances will follow, Sakari Oramo has finally brought Ethel Smyth’s Mass out of the shadows and has revealed it as a work of greater accomplishment and stature than I for one had previously believed.

Chandos have assisted the work’s cause by providing a terrific recording which has presence, definition and impact. I listened to the stereo SACD layer and was most impressed.

John Quinn

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