Monday 18 March 2024

Quite an achievement: the North London Chorus' ambition rewarded in a performance of Ethel Smyth's The Prison that intrigued and engaged

Henry Brewster (HB) in 1897
Henry Brewster (HB) in 1897

Beethoven: Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt, Smyth: The Prison, Brahms: Nänie: Rebecca Bottone, Alex Otterburn, North London Chorus, Meridian Sinfonia, Murray Hipkin, Lucy Stevens; St James Church, Muswell Hill
Reviewed 16 March 2023

A welcome opportunity to hear Ethel Smyth's late work live, in a fine performance which rewarded the choir for its daring in programming The Prison

Ethel Smyth's late work, The Prison, which she described as a 'Symphony for soprano, bass-baritone soli, chorus and orchestra' does not get many concert outings, despite being rediscovered on disc [see my review]. The enterprising North London Chorus under their conductor Murray Hipkin gave a rare performance of Ethel Smyth's The Prison at St James Church, Muswell Hill on 16 March 2024 with the Meridian Sinfonia and soloists Rebecca Bottone and Alex Otterburn. Also in the programme was Beethoven's Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt and Brahms' Nänie. Lucy Stevens, who has developed a show about Ethel Smyth, Grasp the Nettle, provided lively spoken introductions to Smyth and The Prison, including Smyth's observations on meeting Brahms.

We began with Beethoven's Goethe setting, Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt written in 1814/15 (so definitely not an early work), it is one of those middle-period Beethoven pieces, like Wellington's Victory, that rather get a veil drawn over them when discussing Beethoven's musical career. In two movements, without any sort of orchestral prelude, things began with a nice hushed evocation of the calm sea, the music more interestingly complex than one might have anticipated, and then a prosperous voyage that was full of vigour and energy, the choir displaying both attentiveness and enthusiasm.

Ethel Smyth was just a year younger than Elgar, like him she did not attend any formal music institution in England, and like him, she wished to study in Leipzig. But Elgar's father (a provincial piano tuner) could not afford to send his son; Smyth's father, a General whose opposition Smyth managed to face down, could and, surprisingly, did send his daughter to Leipzig. There she soon dropped out of official lessons and studied privately. Like Elgar, Smyth's music exists at a slight tangent to the standard English line of Parry and Stanford (both highly influenced by Brahms) and their pupils, leading the English 20th century musical style. Until the Great War, much of Smyth's musical life was in Continental Europe.

By the time she came to write The Prison she was over 70 and deafness had vastly slowed down her output. The music is conservative for its time, yet with a definite presence, you never feel that Brahms is present in the room. Dramaturgically the work is close to Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, in the the text that Smyth extracted from her friend H.B. Brewster's philosophical treatise involves a prisoner preparing for death, communing with his soul. Brewster had died in 1908 and The Prison was something of a memorial to him (around the time of the work's premiere Smyth arranged for Brewster's original philosophical tract to be re-published with her own biographical sketch of the man). Brewster had written librettos for Smyth, and the lack of his sure dramatic hand is felt in The Prison; the text, as set by Smyth, remains dense and and somewhat impenetrable.

What we have is the Prisoner (Alex Otterburn) and his Soul (Rebecca Bottone), along with Voices (the chorus) engaging in a philosophical dialogue, the first part Close on Freedom ends with the Prisoner resigning himself to his fate 'And it seems to me that I am as a doomed ship'. The second part, The Deliverance ends with the Prisoner's death, with him and his Soul becoming conjoined.

The setting is largely in free arioso with rich and complex orchestral support. There are a few sections resembling set pieces, aria-like moments for the soloists and big choruses, but the main effect is fluid flow. Smyth write lyrically, but without any thumping tunes, and in many ways the work evoked for me Elgar's late oratorios The Apostles and The Kingdom, which similarly use this sort of fluid flow, and Smyth's approach to setting Brewster's rather dense text seemed to draw hints of Vaughan Williams' approach to Walt Whitman in his writing for the soloists in his Sea Symphony.

But the work resembles neither of these. The orchestra doesn't so much accompany as contribute to the dialogue, rather than supporting the voices the instruments create a web of sound around them, and Smyth's writing for the large orchestra (triple woodwind) is remarkably transparent, with quite a lot of soloistic writing for individual instruments. It is a highly sophisticated work with memorable orchestral moments including the prelude to Part Two with its Baroque hints. And Smyth weaves into the later fabric two ancient Greek melodies that she had notated when visiting Greece. Perhaps the only moment that sits awkwardly to modern ears is that Smyth, the daughter of General in the British Army, uses the Last Post as part of the scenes of the Prisoner's death.

Lasting an hour, the work was an ambitious undertaking for a choral society, featuring music that neither singers nor orchestral players had performed before, and it is clear that Smyth's writing presents notable challenges. The soloists were excellent, Rebecca Bottone singing the Soul with radiant tone and poise, even the long passage that is on a high monotone (as the orchestra wove a web around her), whilst Alex Otterburn managed to make the Prisoner's philosophical maunderings very present and engaging, he always held the attention and made the music feel obvious. 

The chorus surmounted most of their challenges, and all concerned should be proud of their achievement. What we got was a performance that made us think about, consider and enjoy the work. There was a confidence to the singing that transcended the occasional tricky corner and helped engage the audience. 

The Meridian Sinfonia were on fine form and largely did Smyth's writing justice. There is no doubt that the work would benefit from the long rehearsal period that a fully professional performance would bring (and one wonders why it still has not been done at the BBC Proms), but Murray Hipkin and his team can be proud of their achievement. When the audience left, everyone was discussing Smyth's work in a way which said that the performance had certainly engaged.

Before The Prison, Lucy Stevens gave an engaging and informative introduction to Smyth, drawing on Smyth's own writings with Stevens using her Smyth persona from her stage show to admirable effect. After The Prison and before Brahms' Nänie, Stevens returned with Smyth's observations on Brahms - she admired the music but was rather tart about the man, particularly his dim view of women as composers!

Nänie, a funeral song written in memory of a friend, returned us to the world of Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem. The chorus gave a contained, concentrated and fluid performance of the work, but it felt a bit of a wrench of the the late Romantic complexity and striking evanescence of the end of Smyth's The Prison, and I wished they had had the confidence to end with Smyth.

It is nearly 20 years, I think, since the previous UK performance of Smyth's The Prison. The North London Chorus showed braveness in tackling the work, and the results were a great achievement.

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