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Dame Ethel SMYTH (1858-1944)
The Prison (1930)
Symphony for Soprano, Bass-baritone, Chorus and Orchestra
Dashon Burton (bass-baritone) – The Prisoner; Sarah Brailey (soprano) – The Soul
Experiential Chorus and Orchestra/James Blachly
rec. 2019, Concert Hall, SUNY Purchase, New York. DSD
Text included

Last year, Chandos issued a splendid recording of Dame Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D. The performance, conducted by Sakari Oramo, was a very fine one and enabled me to appreciate at last the stature of a work of which I’d previously been unsure, despite hearing it both live and on disc (review). Now the label has issued another major Smyth score in a release which is, if anything, more enterprising still.

The Mass dates from 1891, though Dame Ethel revised it in 1925. The Prison is a much later work; indeed, as Elizabeth Wood explains in her valuable notes, it was the composer’s last major work, composed between 1929 and 1930. It is also her first and only score to be described as a symphony. However, Ms Wood cautions that it is not a symphony in the conventional sense. Rather, as she explains, Smyth used the description ‘symphony’ “to denote an ancient Greek idea of ‘concordance’ of sweet sounds, not the orchestral genre. The work eludes formal analysis. It is neither a symphony for chorus, nor a sacred oratorio…”

Since the work was completely unknown to me, I’m going to draw on Ms Wood’s most informative notes, and the equally valuable essay by Amy Elizabeth Zigler, to sketch the background. The literary inspiration was a book, The Prison: A Dialogue (1891) by Dame Ethel’s close friend, Harry Bennet Brewster (1850-1908). Smyth had met Brewster, an Anglo-American, in the 1880s and they were steadfast friends until Brewster’s death. Ms Wood describes hm as the composer’s “anchor”. Among other things, he helped Smyth write the libretti for her first two operas and himself wrote the libretto for her third opera, The Wreckers. Brewster’s book took the form of a Platonic dialogue among four friends who have come together to read a text supposedly authored by a prisoner on the eve of his execution. Dame Ethel pared down Brewster’s text and refashioned it into a dialogue between the Prisoner (who is innocent) and his Soul. As Ms Wood puts it, “He aspires through contemplation and ethical conduct to detach the self from the ego and free the imprisoned mind, body and soul from the shackles of desire, so as to attain spiritual deliverance.” The chorus adds commentary. Elizabeth Wood adds two pertinent reminders: firstly, that Dame Ethel herself spent a brief time in prison in 1912 as a result of her suffragette activities; and, secondly, that Beethoven’s Fidelio was her favourite opera.

Dame Ethel conducted the first performance of The Prison in Edinburgh in February 1931; Adrian Boult conducted a second performance in London five days later. I have no idea how often the work has been performed since then – not that often, I suspect – but the present recording follows four years during which conductor James Blachly immersed himself in the work and prepared a new performance edition of the score for the publishers, Schirmer. If I’m right in believing that The Prison has been long neglected then I think it likely that the principal reason is the libretto. To be frank, the words hobble the work. You may have inferred – correctly - from the earlier reference to “contemplation and ethical conduct” that Brewster is concerned with lofty ideals. The text is earnest and ambitious but I found it hard to get to grips with. On the other hand, I had no difficulty getting to grips with the music itself; Dame Ethel’s music is full of interest and consistently held my attention once I’d listened past the words. The music is often very powerful and there’s no doubt that it’s deeply felt. I may have difficulties with the libretto but Brewster’s words and sentiments clearly mattered a great deal to Dame Ethel; her music radiates sincerity and eloquence. Furthermore, there are passages of no little beauty, not least in the concluding Epilogue

The two solo parts are crucially important and full of challenging writing for the singers. Fortunately, here we have two soloists who are fully up to the demands of their respective roles. The soprano role of The Soul contains a lot of rapturous writing which Sarah Brailey delivers splendidly. Her tone is gorgeous and she’s ideally suited to the reassuring music that is often associated with her character. She sings with feeling too, and there’s never any doubt as to her full engagement with the music. The only cause for slight disappointment is that her diction isn’t always clear. I think vibrato clouds the clarity at times but on this occasion I’m happy to sacrifice diction for the sheer pleasure of her voice. Opposite her, bass-baritone Dashon Burton is simply outstanding. Every word he sings is clear, and his warm, full tone is a delight. He brings nobility and dignity to the role and I found him completely credible as a man awaiting, and becoming reconciled to, the unjust early termination of his life. I note that he’s described as a bass-baritone and that makes his achievement here all the greater since there are some extremely high-lying passages, all of which are accomplished without any apparent difficulty.

The chorus writing is skilful. Dame Ethel wrote well for the choir in her Mass but, with the benefit of greater experience over the years, I think Smyth’s choral writing is more accomplished in The Prison. There are only 27 singers in the Experiential Chorus but there’s no lack of heft where needed – I suspect the singers are professionals – and the choral lines are clearly delivered. The chorus has quite a substantial part to play in the proceedings and these singers deliver the goods.

So too do their colleagues in the Experiential Orchestra. The orchestration does not require excessive forces, nor exotic instruments but the scoring is consistently interesting and very well suited to the various moods of the music. The playing is always polished and, like all the other performers, the instrumentalists evidence great commitment to the cause of this work.

The recording is something of a personal triumph for conductor James Blachly. He writes in a short note that when he first encountered Smyth’s music his initial expectations were low, but as soon as rehearsals began “I found myself overtaken by the power of her music and the depth of her orchestration.” Thus inspired, he began four years of work preparing the critical edition of the score, culminating in this premiere recording. Obviously, I have no yardstick against which to judge his performance but his conducting seems to me to be full of conviction and I find it hard to imagine that The Prison could have received stronger advocacy. Smyth’s music is in very safe hands.

The recording was made by the excellent and highly experienced team at Soundmirror Inc, led by producer Blanton Alspaugh. This company has a well-deserved reputation for recordings that are truthful, have plenty of impact, and report lots of inner detail while giving an excellent big picture of the performance. This recording has all the hallmarks of the house. I listened to the stereo layer of this SACD and was mightily impressed with the results. Chandos have also pulled out all the stops when it comes to documentation introducing an unfamiliar piece; the booklet essays by Elizabeth Wood and Amy Elizabeth Zigler are ideal.

I’ve voiced a reservation over the libretto of The Prison but don’t let that put you off – you may, in any case, view Brewster’s text differently. What really matters is that Dame Ethel’s setting contains music of great worth and this neglected piece is here given a splendid performance.

This disc offers a significant expansion of our knowledge of the music of Dame Ethel Smyth. I’m very glad that I’ve had the chance to become acquainted with The Prison and I have no doubt that this is an important release.

John Quinn

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