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Music: The Prison (1930), by Ethel Smyth (première recording)

20 November 2020

Roderic Dunnett hears an Ethel Smyth première

DAME Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), whose vocal Symphony The Prison has just been issued on Chandos (CHAN 5279), used to remark, icily, that her name was pronounced “Smith”’, not “Smythe”. Yet there was irony, too: witness her piano Variations on an Original Theme (of an Exceedingly Dismal Nature) in D flat major.

She was a formidable woman, a brolly-wielding suffragette, and the author of some ten volumes of memoirs. Her personality and craftsmanship were admired by Elgar: Chamber music, art songs, operas; above all, her Mass in D, which bears comparison with Beethoven’s.

This “Symphony” with two soloists, confirms her familiarity with German repertoire, rooted in studies, from 1877, in Leipzig.

Smyth conducted The Prison’s première in Edinburgh in 1931; Adrian Boult took it to London; but it was not recorded. This disc confirms that the work is a significant rediscovery, which should never have languished in a drawer. The text, by Henry Bennet Brewster (1850-1908), is a conversation between the Prisoner (baritone) — a political or wartime detainee, perhaps — and his Soul (a wide-ranging soprano). Elgar’s (and Newman’s) Gerontius depicts an anguished Soul borne safely to his rest in the embraced by a tender, loving Angel. This work (the sleeve notes are first-rate) feels akin to this.

Chandos’s recording is superb. The American conductor James Blachly marshals his forces magnificently, including a sympathetic small choir, whose mystic “Voices” recall Schumann’s Faust. Blachly’s own ensemble, the New York-based Experiential Orchestra and Chorus, displays a youthful freshness that pervades every bar.

Smyth’s orchestration is varied and inspiring: a Debussy-like flute solo with oboe response (birdsong) evokes those sounds that bring momentary relief to an internee; lulling harp; and a trumpeted Last Post (fractionally corny), like Vaughan Williams’s Third Symphony, are perfectly modulated. A serene, dignified resignation characterise the superb baritone (Dashon Burton) and soprano (Sarah Brailey).

Blachly’s orchestra feels rich, warm, and empathetic. Brewster was also the librettist of Smyth’s opera The Wreckers (Leipzig, 1906; London/Beecham, 1909); and penned “An appeal to the Christian public in defence of reason and national Christianity . . by a friend to evangelical truth”.

A second half-hour continues this masterpiece: evocative, poignant, and inspired. Sections pass at a leisurely pace, like, say, Brahms’s Requiem. But the work that has closest affinities with the spirit of The Prison, apart from Dallapiccola’s Il Prigioniero, is Schoenberg’s elegy on the Holocaust, A Survivor from Warsaw, just seven minutes long. And yet every minute of Smyth’s pleading Symphony is as telling; thank goodness we now have it on disc.


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