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 and Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
Rec. 26 & 27 January 2019, Watford Colosseum, UK
Reviewed in surround
CHANDOS CHSA5240 SACD [70:45]
This disc opens with Smyth’s best known piece, and continues with one of her best ones. The Overture to her opera
“The Wreckers” is likely to be the one work of hers people have heard, if they have heard anything of her work. So this is an ideal programme for those wishing to explore Smyth’s larger-scale music. The Overture is an exuberant curtain-raiser, with lively outer sections representing the stormier aspects of the plot, with plenty of sonorous contributions from the BBC brass. A lyrical middle section first showcases the winds, then a sumptuous and sturdy theme gives the strings their head, and the BBC players the chance to draw on the solemn sonorities called upon by Brahms and Bruckner.
The Mass has been criticised for sticking nearly throughout to its key of D (major or minor) but Smyth finds plenty of variety in other ways, not least in her attentive response to the text. The structure is intriguing, and quasi-symphonic despite the relative absence of harmonic variety. Thus the six movements of the Mass are grouped such that there are four larger units. The Kyrie serves as a 9 minute prelude, in which the soloists are silent. The long and often lively 17 minute Credo comes next, and the final triumphant Gloria, also 17 minutes, closes the work. In between these two big sections are the three quieter lyrical ones, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei, which combined play for just 18 minutes. Smyth said she wanted the Gloria to come last, out of liturgical sequence, to close with a triumph. It also rounds off a very effective piece of structural planning. Not the least strength of Oramo’s performance is that he seems to play it this way, in the ebb and flow of intensity he brings over its hour-long span.
The Kyrie starts quietly with the basses, then tenors and the other sections enter in turn, leading to a crescendo and a sustained climax at “Christe eleison”, peaking with the brazen sound of a cymbal clash. This is followed by a long retreat to a quiet close. All this is very well paced, with the dynamics effectively terraced by Oramo over its nine minute length. The Credo follows (as the usual the “Gloria” comes last), allegro con fuoco and with an abundance of counterpoint, as at the fugal lament for the "Crucifixus", short fugato sections starting at "Dominum et vivificantem", and ending with a fugal "et vitam venturi" (as does the Missa Solemnis). The choral singing is clear and clean in these busy sections, while the quieter sections are no less impressive, and Oramo’s direction keeps the whole seventeen minute movement coherent. Chorus and orchestra dominate but we hear something of the tenor and soprano soloists, at this point more as a change of texture than as full solos.
The Sanctus starts with an alto solo, and Catriona Morison is radiant in tone. She is joined by the soprano and alto choral sections who continue in the lyrical "pleni sunt coeli" leading into a climax, with an eight-part chorus for the "Hosanna" imposingly presented here under Oramo’s lively direction. The Benedictus is led by the soprano solo, and at times Susanna Hurrell sounds slightly taxed by the high tessitura, although the voice develops the sort of ‘beat’ that suggests this might be down to Oramo’s slowish tempo. The Agnus Dei is for tenor solo and chorus, and Ben Johnson seizes his moment with some fervent singing.
The concluding Gloria starts with a joyous outburst – this and the Credo open with lively rhythmic figures not unlike that which opens the Overture to The Wreckers and Oramo uses them to kick start these movements with real impetus. Of "et in terra pax" Tovey says “nothing in this Mass is more original or impossible to forget as the change of time and the radiant melody". It is taken up first by the tenor solo and then by the other parts. The bass soloist has an important passage at “Domine Fili unigenite” where Duncan Rock is vocally solid and emotionally committed. The closing pages bring the whole work to a rousing climax from the BBC forces, the large choir sounding as if they really enjoyed singing this music.
Smyth’s impressive Mass in D has much more to do with the 19th century choral and orchestral mass tradition from Beethoven to Bruckner than with the English choral works which followed it, such as Gerontius, A Sea Symphony, or Belshazzar’s Feast. It is not in that league (few works are), but Smyth’s Mass at least belongs in the next tier with works such as Delius’s Mass of Life or Holst’s Choral Symphony, well worth hearing occasionally at Festivals, being more than rewarding enough for choristers and audiences to get to know. This fine disc should help Smyth’s Mass stake a claim for more exposure.
There have been two earlier recordings which I have not heard, but in an earlier MusicWeb review John Quinn preferred this new one to that from the USA’s Plymouth Festival Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Philip Brunelle (review here). The sound on this Chandos SACD is good, the surround image is well-focussed and the recording does all that is needed, coping well with frequent switches of scale between intimate and full-bodied. I would have welcomed a touch more atmospheric ambience in a work the composer especially wished to hear in a large ecclesiastical building.
The booklet note by Laura Tunbridge does not duck the issue of how assumptions about female composers affected the work’s reception, and there is some interesting material on the views of George Bernard Shaw. But she has been given no room alas for anything on the actual music. That is a pity since it hard to find much on these scores anyway, though the appreciative note on the Mass in D by Donald Tovey quoted above can be found in volume 5 of his “Essays in Musical Analysis” (Oxford University Press, 1937). The Latin text and an English translation are included, and the cover is adorned with John Sargent’s delightful drawing of Dame Ethel singing.
Previous review: John Quinn