ENDNOTES, February 2020

Ethel Smyth and her dog Marco, 1891

Endnotes, February 2020

Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D; overture to The Wreckers;  and a recital at Middle Temple Hall, reviewed by Stuart Millson

Ever since the revival of Ethel Smyth’s opera The Wreckers in 1994 (a once-famous piece, championed by such figures as Bruno Walter and Sir Thomas Beecham) there has been a growing interest in the work of this Edwardian socialite who was also a political radical and suffragette. Recently, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chandos Records joined forces for the first recording of Dame Ethel’s Mass in D, a work of enormous power and fervour; a piece in which Smyth scales the heights alongside Parry and Elgar – and which bears witness to her associations as a student at Leipzig with figures such as Grieg, Dvorak and later Johannes Brahms.

Writing the work on the Royal Yacht of Empress Eugenie of France, Smyth dedicated the piece to a well-to-do Anglo-Irish family, the Trevelyans – in particular, to the daughter of the house, Pauline. The composition of the piece seems to have accompanied a religious crisis for its creator – a possible conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism, but a journey that was never made.

Beginning with an extended adagio – the Kyrie eleison emerging from an ethereal mist of longing and devotion; and ending with an uplifting Gloria – and with demanding, almost operatic roles for the soloists (in this recording, Susanna Hurrell – soprano, Catriona Morison – mezzo-soprano, Ben Johnson – tenor and Duncan Rock – baritone), the piece holds its own alongside Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces and Requiem. The first performance took place in 1893 and was included in the same programme as Haydn’s The Creation.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra plays magnificently throughout, likewise in its thrilling rendition of the Overture to Smyth’s Cornish drama and romance, The Wreckers. This is the first time that this curtain-raiser has been recorded as a stand-alone piece since Sir Alexander Gibson’s well-loved version on EMI, made at the end of the 1960s, and included on an album entitled Music of the Four Countries, with accompanying works by Hamilton Harty, Edward German and Hamish MacCunn. The new Chandos performance is conducted by the Finnish maestro, Sakari Oramo, who has consistently championed rare British music, and who – in The Wreckers overture – finds a quicker pace to the piece than Gibson, although Oramo takes great care in showing the rich detail of the woodwind writing. The BBC SO makes a superb sound, especially in those sections which show the elements lashing against the Cornish coast: a spellbinding nine minutes and 14 seconds of music.

No less spellbinding was a recital held in January at the prestigious Middle Temple Hall. It featured some of the brightest new talents in classical music – the Australian mezzo-soprano, Lotte Betts-Dean (Royal Academy of Music, Oxford Lieder Young Artists); pianist and Wigmore Hall recitalist, Dominic Degavino; and recorder player, Maria Papathanasiou of the Guildhall School – who has appeared with the LSO, under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel and Valery Gergiev.

Elegantly accompanied by Dominic Degavino, Lotte Betts-Dean sang Schubert’s Du bist die Ruh, a setting of Rückert’s “You are the calm, the gentle peace…” This is Schubert at his most touching. Sunny French seas were then conjured up in a smiling, breezy interpretation of popular singer Charles Trenet’s song La Mer. And Maria Papathanasiou flitted beautifully through the second movement of Giuseppe Sammartini’s Concerto for descant recorder in F major, and a Gavotte by Handel – this soloist being joined in a duet by that accomplished co-player and recorder enthusiast, Meg Hepher.

With its magnificent decoration and imposing portraits of the Stuarts looking down, the Middle Temple Hall was the perfect venue for this special chamber recital – and doubtless a memorable moment for some of the most aspiring and promising members of a new-generation of musicians.

Stuart Millson is Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review

CD details: Ethel Smyth, Mass in D & Overture to The Wreckers, Chandos, CHSA 5240

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