Sakari Oramo Conducts Ethel Smyth

cover - CHSA5240

WP 2019 - 2SMYTH: The Wreckers: Overture. Mass in D / Susanna Hurrell, sop; Catriona Morison, mezzo; Ben Johnson, ten; Duncan Rock, bar; BBC Symphony Orch. & Chorus; Sakari Oramo, cond / Chandos CHSA5240

From about the mid-1980s to the early ‘90s, I discovered and collected recordings of Dame Ethel Smyth’s music. Much of it came out on a small German label called Trouba-Disc, but in 1991 Minnesota-based conductor Philip Brunelle, who had recently issued the first complete recording of Aaron Copland’s wonderful opera The Tender Land, put out Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D on Virgin Classics. The album also included Mrs. Waters’ aria from Smyth’s opera The Boatswain’s Mate and The March of the Women, a piece written for the British suffragette movement then led by Smyth’s friend and part-time lover, Mrs. Emmaline Pankhurst.

It was a wonderful performance of the Mass, and awakened even more interest in me to hear Smyth’s most celebrated opera, The Wreckers, but it would take more than a decade before I heard Odaline de la Martinez’ splendid recording of this still-obscure work. I’m convinced that the reason the opera is still obscure is because the plot is not only rather strange but, really, tied very closely to British history and tradition, and thus doesn’t have a very strong universal pull, because the music, as you will hear in the overture which opens this recording, the music is really outstanding. Smyth was raised in the late Romantic period and came to admire both Brahms and Tchaikovsky, polar opposites who in real life detested each others’ music. But her fusion of their opposing aesthetics in addition to her own inspiration produced some truly remarkable music that still needs to enter the standard repertoire: songs and chamber works galore, the “Double Concerto” for violin and horn, and of course this Mass and The Wreckers.

Comparing the Brunelle performance to this one, there are several slight but important differences. One is that Brunelle used the orchestra and chorus of the Plymouth Music Series, which were not chamber groups by any means but not as large and not quite as powerful as the massed BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. In addition to Welsh soprano Eiddwen Harrhy, Brunelle’s other three soloists were all “chamber opera” singers who he had used in his excellent recording of The Tender Land: mezzo Janis Hardy, tenor Dan Dressen and bass James Bohn. Oramo’s soloists, though previously all unknown to me, all have excellent voices. In fact, I prefer tenor Ben Johnson’s timbre to that of Dressen, and Catriona Morison has a much more appropriate, rich-sounding “British oratorio” contralto voice compared to Janis Hardy’s very pretty but light and high-sounding mezzo. Soprano Susanna Hurrell has a noticeable flutter in her voice, but it’s an even flutter and not too close to a wobble and her timbre is very pretty.

In terms of tempo, these performances are not far apart. Some of the movements in this new recording are conducted a bit quicker than Brunelle, some a bit slower, but none are so far apart as to make a huge difference except for the opening “Kyrie eleison.” Here are the comparisons:

Brunelle Oramo
Kyrie eleison 10:16 9:14
Credo 16:48 17:00
Sanctus 4:41 4:33
Benedictus 5:49 6:00
Agnus Dei 8:16 7:34
Gloria 16:35 16:37

The music, and its genesis, is actually quite remarkable and unique in Smyth’s oeuvre. Never a very religious woman, she claimed to have been suddenly overtaken by the “stress of a strong religious impulse,” inspired by her crush on the beautiful and devoutly Catholic young Pauline Trevelyan, that inspired this Mass. But writing it and getting it performed was two different things, and Smyth had no luck finding any orchestra and chorus in England to put it on. It was only through the good graces of Queen Victoria, to whom she introduced it in 1891, that the Mass was finally performed. This was partly due to the influence of the Duke of Edinburgh who was not only Queen Victoria’s son but also President of the Royal Choral Society. The debut performance finally took place at the Royal Albert Hall on January 18, 1893. The first two parts of Haydn’s Creation were also on the program. Smyth thought the performance “a really fine one” and the chorus “first rate,” but as usual at that time, she received condescending reviews. particularly one who said he was “entertained” to see “a lady composer attempting to soar into the loftier regions of musical art.”

Ethel and Marco

Ethel Smyth and her beloved dog Marco, “a huge sprawling yellow-and-white puppy of the long-haired kind generally seen dragging washerwomen’s carts.” She was actually able to let him live with her in a small apartment, and loved him because, unlike her father, he “never complained about my work.”

Those unfamiliar with Smyth’s music would do well to start with this work, not because it is typical of her work but, on the contrary, because it is not only different from her usual style but different from any late-19th-century British music I’ve ever heard. Smyth’s music takes twists and turns in rhythm, harmony and thematic development that are constantly unexpected and exciting. Being dull was one thing you could never accuse Ethel Smyth of being, and nowhere is she more original or exciting than in this Mass. Just when you think that you know how the music is going to proceed, it suddenly slashes and burns through exciting passages that seem to come out of nowhere but are, in fact, exceedingly well planned and written. (When shown one of her chamber works by his close friend Heinrich von Herzogenberg, Johannes Brahms accused him of slipping in a piece of music by a male composer. He refused to believe that a woman could have written such a bold and original piece.

One will also note that the layout of the Mass is unusual, with the “Gloria” coming at the end rather than before the “Benedictus” and “Agnus Dei,” but here again Smyth was unconventional. Perhaps one reason why she chose to end with the “Gloria” was because all four vocal soloists sing together here, and she felt it was a better, more effective finale.

By and large, however, if you already own the Brunelle recording of this work, you may not want to add this, particularly because I, for one, would not be without The March of the Women, but if you don’t, this is clearly the better performance, and improvements in digital sound quality over the past 28 years are remarkable enough to make a big difference.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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