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Ethel SMYTH (1858-1944)
Chamber Music and Songs - Volume 4
Lieder, Op.4 (1877) [15:23]
Lieder und Balladen, Op.3 (1877) [13:16]
Cello Sonata in C minor (1880) [26:21]
Three Moods of the Sea (1913) [11:40]
Maarten Koningsberger (baritone)
Kelvin Grout (piano)
Friedemann Kupsa (cello)
Anna Silova (piano)
rec. 1997, Bauer Studios, Ludwigsburg
Texts but no translations from the German

This is the fourth volume in the ground-breaking Troubadisc series devoted to Ethel Smyth (vols 1,2 &3 reviewed here). It was a product of the mid-90s and all the items in this particular volume were première recordings.

There are three song cycles and the Cello Sonata. The two early song cycles, the Opp.3 and 4, were composed in her first year at the Leipzig Conservatoire, where she studied initially with Reinecke and Jadassohn. She was nineteen and it was the year before she took private lessons from von Herzogenberg. The Op 3 collection of Lieder und Balladen sets five poems, four by von Eichendorff and the final one by Mörike. Though they are relatively brief they show a high degree of competence in German setting and an ability gently to imbue the songs with characterisation. There is a melancholy element to the first song, especially, a deftly flowing piano introduction to the third and an altogether lighter textured air when it comes to the Mörike setting with which this little cycle ends. For her Op.4 she chose five works by five different poets – the central one again by von Eichendorff, seemingly something of a preoccupation for her at the time – and as one might expect the idiom is much the same, though perhaps lighter in spirit. The Büchner setting, for example, encourages pert dance rhythms and the Groth poem is set to a tripping, youthful, even verdant rhythm. True, there is conventional romantic melancholia in the second song, a setting of von Wildenbruch, but it takes its place attractively in the cycle.

A brief word of warning; Troubadisc provides the original German texts but there are no translations into English, so you’ll need recourse to your capacious leather-bound library of German literature.

A quarter of a century later, or so, came Three Moods of the Sea, a Stanfordish title for three settings of Arthur Symons, once again for baritone. It’s heard here in Smyth’s arrangement for baritone and piano and was originally written for large orchestra and premiered in June 1913 by Herbert Heyner with the LSO directed by Nikisch – this was a few months before Nikisch’s famous premiere of George Butterworth’s A ‘Shropshire Lad’ Rhapsody in Leeds. Smyth’s harmonies are now much more advanced, of course, and explicitly impressionist. Her exploration of Debussian procedure is everywhere evident, the writing irradiated by crispness and clarity but also harmonic sophistication. The accompaniment, even in piano reduction, is ear-catching, and the final setting, an Adagio, the tumult over, convincingly draws things to a natural and reflective conclusion.

Maarten Koningsberger and Kelvin Grout are a thoroughly sensitive team in these three varied cycles. A recent recording of both the early 1877 cycles has just appeared on Somm with contralto Lucy Stevens, though I’ve yet to hear it (review).

The Cello Sonata in C minor of 1880 has recently been recorded by Lionel Handy and Jennifer Hughes in an all-British cello disc on Lyrita (review). The Lyrita is the more focused recording and the Handy-Hughes team is tonally richer than Friedemann Kupsa and Anna Silova. However, where the Troubadisc scores is in their genuinely more con fuoco performance of the finale which really takes off in their hands, rather more so than the more leisurely Lyrita version.

So, despite more recent competition, don’t overlook the deftly annotated programme booklet and dedicated performances housed in this pioneering disc or indeed the series of Smyth discs from Troubadisc.

Jonathan Woolf

Posted by Martin Walker on July 15, 2020, 11:11 am
Of course one appreciates Jonathan Woolf's gently ironic humour about listeners' possible 'recourse to your capacious leather-bound library of German literature'. To be boringly factual, however: Emily Zust, as I believe has been mentioned on MW before, has an online resource for Lieder etc: the translations of the poems involved is not necessarily the bees' knees as poetry goes but does the job of rendering the texts quite well. There there is/was the Penguin Book of Lieder, which I believe is no longer currently on offer by Penguin but can be found on the usual online sites reselling books at fairly low prices, and S.S.Prawer's translations are very good, often giving a lively (if unrhymed) impression of the poetry. It is not, however, a capacious book, and some less familiar poems may not be included - in which case, Zust.

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