Out of the Shadows

Sunday, 21 August 2022

Spirit and abandon: Ethel Smyth's Mass at the BBC Proms returns the work home, to the hall where it premiered in 1891

Ethel Smyth: Mass - Nardus Williams, Robert Murray, Sakari Oramo, Bethan Langford, Božidar Smiljanić, BBC Symphony Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo BBC)
Ethel Smyth: Mass - Nardus Williams, Robert Murray, Sakari Oramo, Bethan Langford, Božidar Smiljanić, BBC Symphony Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo BBC)

Debussy: Nocturnes, Smyth: Mass; Nardus Williams, Bethan Langford, Robert Murray, Božidar Smiljanić, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo; BBC Proms at Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed 20 August 2022 (★★★★★)

Smyth's early masterwork comes home, in a performance that filled the hall with her abundant spirit, by turns vigorous and intimate; an evening that contrasted Smyth with the vividly delicate palate of Debussy's writing at the same period

Glancing through various volumes of Ethel Smyth's autobiography, the name of Claude Debussy does not crop up frequently. She met him, and he heard some of her songs in London and made favourable comment, yet the Leipzig-based musical circles that she moved in were very much centred on figures like Brahms, Clara Schumann and Fanny Hensel. Yet if you listen to her music, other strains are detectable and certainly after hearing The Wreckers at Glyndebourne [see my review] earlier this year, the influence French opera on the work seems undoubtable. 

So it made a fascinating compare and contrast when, for BBC Prom 44 at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 20 August 2022, Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra paired two works both written in the 1890s, Debussy's Nocturnes and Ethel Smyth's Mass, with the BBC Symphony Chorus and soloists Nardus Williams, Bethan Langford, Robert Murray and Božidar Smiljanić.

Debussy's Nocturnes were written in the 1890s and premiered in 1901, his first major orchestral work after the Prelude l'après-midi d'un faune. It was a period when Debussy's music was changing, and he abandoned work on his opera  Rodrigue et Chimène, disillusioned with its old-fashioned libretto. Nocturnes gets somewhat fewer outings than it deserves because, of course, the complete work requires the participation of the female chorus in the final movement, Sirènes.

We began with Nuages and were immediately drawn into Debussy's impressionistic world. Except, of course, there is little impressionism in the way Debussy writes, each element, each note is precisely notated and those shimmering textures are the result immense calculation. The result is, perhaps, akin to one of Seurat's paintings, made up of myriad, carefully calculated points, yet step back and the work shimmers magically, we perceive something else entirely. It began with a sound that was barely there, and throughout the movement Oramo wove a lovely tissue of fabric, with individual lines ebbing and flowing. To say that Fêtes was remarkably similar might seem perverse, but it too was a shimmering tissue of fabric only this time made up of far brighter points of light, far stronger colours, yet used with equal subtlety. The moment when the procession first appeared in the distance generated a real shiver of excitement. Whilst Debussy worked hard to incorporate the women's voices into the textures of Sirènes, there is something about voices that draws our attention. Yet the women of the BBC Symphony Chorus were beautifully subtle, and the music undulated from gentle waves to positively orgasmic moments, all finely controlled by Oramo.

Dame Ethel Mary Smyth - 1891-1894 - NPG x13395
Ethel Smyth around the time the Mass was written
National Portrait Gallery (NPG x13395)
Ethel Smyth began her Mass in 1891. She had returned from years training in Leipzig, yet remained friends with the circle that she had drawn around her there. Quite why she started a Mass as her first major work is still a question. After all, that style of piece was hardly one that she would have encountered in Leipzig, large-scale choral masses, requiems apart, are not a big feature of 19th century choral tradition, nor did English composers write large-scale communion service settings for the Anglican church (Stanford did, but these are far less well known than his Evening Service settings). But whilst Smyth's style remained musically conservative throughout her life, contenting itself with variations and developments on late Brahms, in terms of form and content she was always innovative. There are no symphonic works (barring a single concerto) in her output, her operas take a somewhat sidelong glance at the subject matter (just consider the sheer agency of Thirza, the heroine of The Wreckers, when compared to female heroines in other contemporary opera). So, Smyth's Mass could not exist without the tradition of the large-scale English oratorio (even if the major contributions to this in the 19th century were from foreigners like Mendelssohn and Dvorak). The work is a major choral piece, the soloists are secondary and seem to be used mainly to provide points of contrast, between the massed choral forces and the small solo group. There is nothing symphonic about the work's structure, she does not try to map the structure of the mass onto Germanic symphonic form, the orchestra is there simply to provide support and colour.

The Kyrie began deep down, just the basses of the chorus and the double basses, and from this Smyth builds a big dramatic structure. Oramo had the full confidence of his choir, and throughout the evening the BBC Symphony Chorus was on terrific form. In the Kyrie, Oramo drew a wonderful sweep of music, keeping control yet allowing the momentum to build. The Credo began swiftly with almost martial elements, and whilst this martial aspect would reoccur, a feature of Smyth's writing in this movement is its sheer changeability, her love of contrast. So we had a suitably Beethovenian moment from tenor Robert Murray, and a poised 'Et incarnatus' from soprano Nardus Williams supported by a lovely web of orchestra. Yet Smyth seemed to relish these as much for the sheer difference with the surrounding chorus, whether lively or quiet and intense. Later on, she used the solo quartet to provide similar magical moments of pause, and the four soloists worked very finely together as a solo ensemble. Even the closing pages moved between the vigorous and a moment with just the male chorus and a few instruments.

For the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei, the soloists came to the fore somewhat, yet always backed by or echoed by the chorus. The Sanctus began in sober style with mezzo-soprano Bethan Langford supported by a brass chorale, the movement developed in intensity yet remained sober only breaking out in the big choral 'Osanna'. For the Benedictus, Nardus Williams spun a very fine grained, silvery soprano line over gentle orchestral support, creating something aetherial and very special. It was tenor Robert Murray who was to the fore in the Agnus Dei with a series of intense chromatic solo statements of the text, each time echoed by the chorus. Murray was in terrific voice, giving us a finely focused yet heroic feel to this music (listen to helden-tenor Walter Widdop's 1920s very non-period-style recording of the Benedictus from Bach's Mass in B minor and perhaps we gain an insight into the sort of sound word in Smyth's head), but at the end of the movement Murray was left, virtually alone. Terrific.

The Mass ends with the Gloria, partly because Smyth wanted to end with work with music that was upbeat and abandoned, but the decision is not as perverse as it sounds and the rubric of the Book of Common Prayer used in Anglican Churches in the 19th century allows for the Gloria at the end and this was, evidently, quite common. The movement began with vigorous statement, but again Smyth glories in contrasting her massed choir with the fine-grained solo quartet. Bass Božidar Smiljanić finally got his moment in a lovely sober duet with Bethan Langford, intense and rather moving. The vigorous choral ending dissolved into magical solos for Murray and Langford before the gloriously affirmative conclusion.

Ethel Smyth: Mass - Robert Murray, Sakari Oramo, Bethan Langford, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo BBC)
Ethel Smyth: Mass - Robert Murray, Sakari Oramo, Bethan Langford, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo BBC)

The Mass is unconventional in a number of ways and its structure can be understood if we think of it as a small-scale liturgical setting write large. Sakari Oramo has clearly invested much in the work, he was was due to conduct it at the Barbican in 2018 but illness prevented him [see my review], and he has recorded the work with his BBC forces. But at the proms, he and the BBC brought the work home; it premiered in the Royal Albert Hall in 1891 and seems to fit the venue rather better than the Barbican. Smyth's abundant spirit was able to expand, and throughout the evening the BBC Symphony Chorus gave a superb performance, full of vigour, spirit, abandon and subtlety, all the time ably supported and partnered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the fine team of soloists.

Building on the performances of Smyth's The Wreckers, this Summer has been a Smyth bonanza at the BBC Proms, with The Wreckers, songs, the Concerto for Violin and Horn [see my review] and the Mass, with The Boatswain's Mate popping up at Grimeborn [see my review]. I do hope that her music does not disappear again for another 20 years!









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