Music review: Mass in D, by Dame Ethel Smyth, at the Barbican

by
07 December 2018

Roderic Dunnett hears a neglected work that belongs in the first rank

Adam Becket/Church Times

The Barbican

The Barbican

WHO in these islands was the most impressive composer of Elgar’s era, after Elgar himself? Plenty of possible male candidates come to mind, but the BBC Symphony Chorus is celebrating its 90th birthday, and at its home venue, the Barbican Hall in London, it launched the 2018-19 season with the Mass in D by Dame Ethel Smyth.

The Mass, first heard in January 1893, is in the same key as the later of Beethoven’s two settings (of which the earlier is in C), his Missa Solemnis, Op.123, by which it is patently inspired: you cannot fail to hear the exultant climax of Fidelio in the Gloria, which Smyth placed last, as in the Prayer Book rite, and regarded as the best of her Mass’s explosive six movements.

The opening Kyries are daringly expansive, as, indeed, is all that follows. Even for the splendid BBC chorus, prepared magnificently by Neil Ferris, these protracted movements are a challenge. All forces were directed by English National Opera’s latest Music Chief, Martyn Brabbins, an amiable and effective giant in the pit and a brilliant exponent of English repertoire. Brabbins, for long king of the last-minute stand-ins, assumed the leadership here with a rapturously on-form BBC Symphony Orchestra for their inspiring Music Director, the Anglicised Finn Sakari Oramo.

Brabbins may not be able to produce quite the scintillating, shimmering string sounds that Oramo introduced to Birmingham when he succeeded Sir Simon Rattle and (in this upper-strings department) all but eclipsed him. But this Barbican showing was knockout.

All half-dozen of Smyth’s movements bowl you over. You keep thinking, “How can she be so bold?” In H. C. Colles’s edition of Grove’s Dictionary (MacMillan, 1929), it is written: “This [Mass] definitely placed the composer among the most eminent composers of her time, and easily at the head of all those of her own sex. The most striking thing[s about it are] it was virile [sic], masterly in construction and workmanship, and particularly remarkable for the excellence and rich colouring of the orchestration.”

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It is all the more ironic, then, that the work was not taken up again until 1926, when Adrian Boult conducted it in Birmingham Town Hall and then took it (with the Birmingham Festival Chorus) to the Queen’s Hall, in London.

I thought when I heard the work at its only other outing this year, with the conjoined choral societies of Worcester, Hereford, and Gloucester at the Hereford Three Choirs, that this was something unforgettable. There, Geraint Bowen produced superlative results — abetted by the Philharmonia Orchestra — and I wondered whether anything could match such a wonderfully modulated reading.

Smyth’s work was chosen on both occasions to honour the centenary of the Suffragettes’ triumph, since she was one herself. A further listening to Philippe Brunelle’s thrilling mid-American CD (Virgin VC7 91188-2; if that proves hard to find, an equally faithful and bracing Stuttgart version can also be found on Amazon) further convinced me that this is a work that should have been revived far more widely this year, and should not go back into the attic. Let our other provincial choral societies give it a try.

What makes this a masterpiece is hinted at in that Grove quotation: the structuring, the sheer command, the colouring. What it doesn’t mention is the solos. The start of the Sanctus — think of the cataclysms it inspired in Mozart, or Verdi — is a staggeringly gentle supplication; and it is the contralto (Catriona Morison: wonderful) who launches it. The Benedictus is exquisitely led by the soprano, whom Smyth makes soar into the ether, so that Lucy Crowe with her beautiful light, even girlish, tones made it as beautiful as Brahms’s setting of John 16 in his German Requiem.

At the Agnus Dei, it is the tenor (Ben Johnson): no plaintive appeal, but a massive imprecation, long, long, long, just as the Kyries were protracted. Back comes the tenor, almost but not quite violently, but Smyth brings in — miraculously — the bass-baritone (Duncan Rock) with what seems, melodically, a whole new take on the section. Of course, it’s all related: that’s what the Grove contributor meant by “construction and workmanship”. It is as perfected as a Beethoven late quartet: what wisdom, and what inspiration!

It seemed rather naff to preface such a profound liturgical outpouring with Tchaikovsky’s pontifical First Piano Concerto. I would rather have had the Russian’s Second or Third, which contain exquisite woodwind and solo cello moments, and are scarcely heard in comparison. But the BBC had a point. Just as Debussy met, and was inspired by, Tchaikovsky when he was just a lad, so Dame Ethel hobnobbed with the Russian genius and was on good terms with him, besides encountering other greats, too. She trained in Leipzig and Berlin, and so wasn’t among the “Frankfurt gang” of 19th- to 20th-century English composers; but this German training indicates why she knew her onions.

The next best composer at the turn of the 19th/20th century after Elgar? We surely love Parry and the other gentlemen. But, with this massively inspiring work, give me Smyth every time. The Mass is up there with Gerontius. Elgar would have been the first to admit it.

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