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Dame Ethel SMYTH (1858-1944) 
Songs and Ballads
Four Songs, for voice and chamber ensemble [21:42]
Songs and Ballads (Lieder und Balladen), Op. 3 [14:12]
Lieder, Op. 4 [15:23]
Three Songs [13:35]
Lucy Stevens (contralto)
Elizabeth Marcus (piano)
Berkeley Ensemble/Odaline de la Martinez
rec. 2019, Studio 1, University of Surry, Guildford, UK
Sung texts and English translations provided

Ethel Smyth the English composer wrote music in a number of genres including six operas and a ballet. In 1902, with Der Wald (The Forest) she became the first woman composer to have an opera staged at Covent Garden, London and a year later at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. She was a champion of women’s rights, and her song ‘March of the Women’ became an anthem for the women’s suffrage movement. I am familiar with only a small number of the works in Smyth’s output i.e. The WreckersOverture, Mass in D, Serenade and the Double Concerto for violin and horn, consequently this new collection of songs on Somm is most welcome.

Enitled ‘Songs and Ballads’, the album contains four groups of songs, settings of text by noted poets Henri de Régnier, Leconte de Lisle, Joseph von Eichendorff, Ernst von Wildenbruch, Eduard Mörike et al. In total, there are seventeen settings, twelve sung in English and five in German, composed between 1877 to 1913, spanning some thirty-six years.

On her website, contralto soloist Lucy Stevens is described as a ‘trained actor and a classically trained singer’. After completing an acting degree at Rose Bruford College of Theatre & Performance, London, Stevens studied voice with Gerald Wragg at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. Piano soloist Elizabeth Marcus was a prize-winning student at the Guildhall School, London where she is professor of harpsichord and college fellow. Their CD of Ethel Smyth songs taken from her stage play ‘Ethel Smyth: Grasp the Nettle – The March of the Women’ was recorded in 2018; it has already been released and is available on Stevens’ website.

The first set here is the Four Songs for voice, flute, violin, viola, cello, harp and percussion from the period 1907-08. Intended for mezzo-soprano or baritone, three of the songs are settings of Henri de Régnier and the fourth of Leconte de Lisle all performed using English translations from the original French. Although using the same orchestration, texturally, each song is handled differently: rather than being a discrete soloist the voice part is conceived as integral to the chamber ensemble. Smyth’s appealing chamber orchestration has a clear French flavour. This is a delightful set, adeptly performed by the Berkeley Ensemble; my particular favourite is the enchanting Régnier setting Chrysilla which Stevens sings with tenderness and integrity.

Written around 1877, Smyth’s earliest song cycle with piano, Songs and Ballads (Lieder und Balladen), Op. 3 consists of five songs which here receive their first recordings in English. These settings of an anonymous folksong, three by Joseph von Eichendorff and one by Eduard Mörike all inhabit ‘the theme of lost love with images of the natural world.’ At the time, Smyth was studying music in Germany, including at the Leipzig Conservatoire. Although they are sung in English translations here, not surprisingly these five settings connect strongly to the German Lieder tradition and bear a dedication to the German singer Livia Frege to whom Mendelssohn and Schumann dedicated a number of their songs. In this cycle I relish the uncomplicated folksong setting On the Hill where Stevens sensitively provides an atmosphere of gentle reflection.

Also composed around 1877, the set of five Lieder with piano, Op. 4 are sung in German and are all settings of texts on the theme of motherhood by poets Georg Büchner, Ernst von Wildenbruch, Joseph von Eichendorff, Klaus Growth and Paul Heyse; Smyth’s mother is the dedicatee. They include images of disquieting dreams and nightmares; mentioned in the booklet notes is how in them ‘we hear the themes of her own life’ and contain a range of emotions such as in the setting of Heyse’s Nachtgedanken (Night Thoughts), where Stevens convincingly expresses the pain of living through the night. 

Finally, the most recent works Three Songs with piano, intended for mezzo-soprano or baritone, were written in 1913 and espouse the theme of freedom, stemming from the period when Smyth was active in the suffrage movement. The settings comprise of a single text, The Clown, written by her friend Maurice Baring whose biography Smyth later wrote, and two from suffragette writer Ethel Carnie Holdsworth. The song Possession bears a dedication to Emmeline Pankhurst and On the Road: a marching tune is dedicated to Pankhurst’s daughter Christabel. My particular favourite is Possession, a Holdsworth setting where Stevens persuasively tinges her text with an atmosphere of tender melancholy and Marcus clearly savours her delightful piano part.

Stevens sings effectively throughout this agreeable collection, giving an engaging character to her performance; her sincerity is never in doubt. Not surprisingly, as a contralto she convinces in her low to mid-range, producing a reliably attractive tone. Reaching up to her high register, she sounds less secure and the result is not so inviting. Pianist Elizabeth Marcus demonstrates her empathy with these settings in a fine performance.  The studio recording has the benefit of noticeably clear, well- balanced, satisfying sound. Lucy Stevens, Christopher Wiley and Odaline de la Martinez provide the helpful booklet notes. Invaluable, too, is the inclusion of sung texts with English translations.

There is much to enjoy in this collection and I will certainly return to it.

Michael Cookson

Four Songs for voice and chamber ensemble (c. 1907):
1. Odelette
2. The Dance
3. Chrysilla
4. Anacreontic Ode
Songs and Ballads (Lieder und Balladen), Op. 3* (c. 1877):
5. On the Hill
6. The Lost Hunter
7. Near the Linden Tree
8. It changes what we’re seeing
9. Fair Rohtraut
Lieder, Op. 4 (c. 1877):
10. Tanzlied
11. Schlummerlied
12. Mittagsruh
13. Nachtreiter
14. Nachtgedanken
Three Songs (1913):
15. The Clown
16. Possession (Dedicated to Emmeline Pankhurst)
17. On the Road: a marching tune (Dedicated to Christabel Pankhurst)

*First recording in English



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