Tuesday 11 August 2020

On disc at last: Ethel Smyth's late masterwork, The Prison, receives its premiere recording in a fine performance from American forces

Ethel Smyth The Prison; Dashon Burton, Sarah Brailey, Experiential Chorus and Orchestra, James Blachly; Chandos
Ethel Smyth The Prison; Dashon Burton, Sarah Brailey, Experiential Chorus and Orchestra, James Blachly; Chandos

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 August 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Ethel Smyth's final major work makes it to disc at long last, in a fine recording from American forces which brings out the subtlety of the work
Ethel Smyth's last major work, The Prison, a symphony for soprano, bass-baritone, chorus and orchestra with words by H.B. Brewster has finally made it to disc, giving us a chance at long last to put the composer's post-World War One career into focus. Issued on Chandos Records, this new recording of Ethel Smyth's The Prison features bass-baritone Dashon Burton, soprano Sarah Brailey, Experiential Chorus and Orchestra, conductor James Blachly, and you can read more about the background to the recording in my interview with James.

Until recently, mention Ethel Smyth and three things were likely to pop up. One, she was a suffragette and conducted her March of the Women whilst in prison, two, she wrote an opera The Wreckers and three, wasn't there also a Mass. In fact Smyth wrote six operas and much else besides. The First World War brought a radical break in the career of a composer who had trained and worked largely in Germany and German-speaking areas (she had studied privately in Leipzig with the composer Heinrich von Herzogenberg who was a friend of Brahms' and married to one of Brahms' pupils). Back in England, with fewer possibilities of performance and suffering increasingly from deafness, Smyth's musical output declined in quantity, but not quality. Retrospect Opera recently gave us the chance to hear her 1921-22 opera Fetes Galantes [see my review], though any plans to record her final opera Entente Cordiale (1923) founder on the fact that the score and performing materials seem to have disappeared.

So it is doubly welcome that we now have her final large scale work, The Prison which, heard in tandem with Fetes Galantes, gives a chance to detect the voice of late Ethel Smyth. To that end it is also worth investigating the Concerto for Violin and Horn (from 1926) on Chandos with Odaline de Martinez and the BBC Philharmonic (available for download).

The Prison came at a time when the composer might have been expected to stop work (she was over 70), but a planned visit to Greece made her re-read one of her friend (and probable lover) H.B Brewster's philosophical book, The Prison which was originally published in 1891. This is a dialogue between a group of characters, as Elizabeth Wood's excellent booklet note explains 'HB devised the book of The Prison as a Platonic dialogue among four friends who meet to read a newly discovered text, presumed to have been written by a prisoner on the eve of execution. Each reader voices a different philosophical method – supernaturalist, neo-Platonist, Christian, and positivist, respectively – to comment on moral and philosophical problems found in the text.' Not an obvious source for a large scale choral work, but Smyth thought so.

She and HB had been close until his untimely death in 1908. He had written the libretto of her opera The Wreckers and formed a strong influence on her. This last work was something of a final envoi to a dear friend. Smyth extracted the Prisoner's thoughts from HB's longer text, and used these to create the symphony. Here we have the Prisoner (Dashon Burton), and his soul (Sarah Brailey), and their discussion about how best he prepare for his forthcoming execution. 'He aspires through contemplation and ethical conduct to detach the self from the ego and free the imprisoned mind, body, and soul from the shackles of desire, so as to attain spiritual deliverance.'

There is no overture, we plunge straight in and for much of the work it feels in many ways as if we have wandered into a version of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius written for a more secular society. It is not that Smyth sounds like Elgar, but her structure of the dialogue with occasional comments from the chorus, feels akin to the opening of part II of Elgar's work. The atmospheres are similar, yet the way Smyth's music is large of scale yet clearly worked through in terms of structure reflects the Germanic influence of Smyth's training in Leipzig, and reflects the music of her older contemporaries Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and Sir Hubert Parry (both dead by the time Smyth wrote The Prison).

There are plenty of moments in the piece when you can hear influences and colours in the writing. One work I scribbled down when listening was RVW's Dona Nobis Pacem, except that premiered in 1936 after Smyth's work premiered in 1931, which rather makes you think doesn't it? There are also hints of German late-Romanticism, notably someone like Richard Strauss. Her source material for the work is quite eclectic, including an early organ piece of her own as well as a version of a surviving Ancient Greek melody which makes for a rather striking moment. Perhaps the most intriguing section of the whole work is the soprano solo 'His struggle is over; the time has come', where Sarah Brailey sings on a single high E with the orchestra weaving their way round her.

Both here and in Fetes Galantes, written eight years earlier, I was struck repeatedly by the way that Smyth writes for voices surrounded by a web of instruments, the transparency surprising given the largeness of her orchestra (triple woodwind). It is such a particular feature, that I did wonder whether Smyth's writing almost soloistically for individual instruments was a feature of her deafness, rather than using big blocks of sound.

That the prison and the execution could mean something else to someone who had lived through World War One and lost friends and colleagues is indicated by the ending. This is deliberately down-beat, there is no glorious apotheosis, the main words include the repeated text 'This is no leavetaking.. Let there be banners and music! The love, the silence, and the song... We are not even going home'. And Smyth weaves into all this, repeatedly, the Last Post. It can seem hackneyed, but surely for contemporaries it must have had a profound feeling.

I had not come across Dashon Burton before and he is a terrific find. He sings with beautiful, beautiful diction allied to a flexibility in a vocal line which is largely dialogue, and he is ably partnered by Sarah Brailey's evocative, plangent Soul. The chorus provide fine backing, they never get their 'Praise to the holiest' moment (pace Elgar), but still impress with the commitment and sophistication they bring to the music. And that goes in spades for the orchestra. All concerned have had to learn over 60 minutes of completely unfamiliar music in a style which is not entirely familiar either. Yet, James Blachly draws a richly sophisticated and evocative performance from everyone. It is perhaps a tribute to the skill of all concerned that we are left pondering not the performance, but the work itself.

There is something, perhaps, slightly uniform about the atmosphere of the work yet Smyth weaves into this some glorious moments and Blachly paces things well so that the music does ebb and flow. The result is thoughtful, almost contemplative and finely structured, it is full of qualities that we don't immediately associate with Smyth who as a character gusts through cultural history with energy, vigour and great directness. This recording will, I hope, lead to something of a reassessment and help us to see Smyth in terms of the Leipzig circle that formed her rather than Sir Thomas Beecham's figure conducting The March of the Women with a toothbrush through a prison window, or the passionate harridan from Virginia Woolf's diaries.

Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) - The Prison (1930) [64:00]
Dashon Burton (bass-baritone)
Sarah Brailey (soprano)
Experiential Chorus and Orchestra
James Blachly (conductor)
Recorded at Concert Hall, SUNY Purchase, New York, 14 and 15 February 2019

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Outdoor engagement and energy: the Corran Quartet in Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven in an Islington courtyard - concert review
  • The close of an amazing season, and a farewell: the last Opera Holland Park of 2020 - concert review
  • 2000 years of history: guitarist Xuefei Yang on exploring the music of her homeland on her new disc Sketches of China, on DECCA - interview
  • Engaging dexterity: Bach's English Suites from the young Italian harpsichordist Paolo Zanzu  - CD review
  • A short yet magical experience: Interstices from Brother Tree Sound  - CD review
  • In the tavern of sweet songs: settings of classical Persian poetry in Edward Fitzgerald's English versions by contemporary composer David Lewiston Sharpe - Cd review
  • The Prison: conductor James Blachly on how an American conductor & orchestra finally brought Ethel Smyth's late masterwork to disc - interview
  • Towards German romantic opera: Carl Maria von Weber's struggle to create modern German opera - feature article
  • Live music returns: Opera Holland Park's uplifting evening of operatic arias from an impressive line-up of performers - concert review
  • Creating new opera under lockdown: I chat to composer Alex Woolf about A Feast in the Time of Plague, his new opera with Sir David Pountney to be premiered by Grange Park Opera - interview
  • Zest and relish: Handel's comic masterpiece Semele directed by John Eliot Gardiner with young cast enjoying every minute - CD review
  • 'Home

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