Dame Ethel SMYTH (1858-1944)
String Quartet in E minor (1902, rev. 1912) [41:40]
String Quintet in E major, Op 1 (1884) [26:28]
Joachim Griesheimer (cello: quintet)
rec. March 1990 (Quartet) and November 1994 (Quintet), Funkstudio, Villa Berg, Stuttgart, Germany
CPO 999 352-2 [68:29]
In her youth, Ethel Smyth was alternately criticized for composing music that was too masculine or too feminine, depending on who was listening. Later she was derided as too conservative. The past few decades saw her music evaluated on its own merits, on a number of recordings. The present disc – one of the earlier efforts in Smyth’s re-evaluation – appeared in 1996, and in 2002 was included in a six-CD set Great Women Composers (review). This is its return.
Ethel Smyth was 17 when she moved to Germany to study and live for the next dozen years. Her Opus 1, the present String Quintet, already shows many personal traits in addition to its solid Germanic cast. It is in five movements, and it demonstrates a sense of the unique capabilities of the string quintet form. The opening very enjoyable Allegro partakes more of Dvořák than Brahms or Herzogenberg (who was Smyth’s teacher and mentor). The second movement has more of a sense of urgency but with a folkish tinge. The scherzo is a bit of a let-down but the succeeding Allegro is quite impressive, serious but not gloomy, and very well-constructed. Indeed, Smyth’s structural abilities are perhaps not noticed frequently enough. The final movement has a fine main theme and again is slightly folkish, though also a bit forward-looking in harmony and rhythm.
The Quartet in E minor is a work of Smyth’s full maturity. It too features her unique ability to combine German solidity with a more personal geniality and whimsy, but with greater emotional and technical profundity. This is immediately evident in the opening Allegretto lirico. The development is of very high quality; the coda also displays Smyth’s characteristic rhythmic sense. The scherzo reminded me of Hubert Parry, and the slow movement that follows is very eloquent. It begins autumnally and somewhat severely but becomes progressively more impassioned. This movement is more forward-looking than the previous two, as is the finale, which – as the notes point out - is a little Bartokian.
The performances on this disc are very proficient technically, and show the musicians’ appreciation for the unique personality in Smyth’s works. Even in the 1990s these were not the first recordings of the two pieces: four discs of Smyth’s chamber and vocal music appeared in the late 1980s and early 1990s on Troubadour (review ~ review). There has also been a more recent recording of the quartet (review). But as an introduction to Smyth’s music this disc is perfect.