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Dame Ethel SMYTH (1858-1944)
Four Songs for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble (1907) [20.20]
Three Songs for mezzo-soprano and piano (1913) [14.06]
Double Concerto for violin, horn and piano in A (1926) [26.24]
Melinda Paulsen (mezzo-soprano)
Renate Eggebrecht-Kupsa (violin)
Franz Draxinger (horn)
Angela Gassenhuber, CÚline Dutilly (pianos)
Ethel Smyth Ensemble/Johannes Schmeller
rec. 1992, Bauer Studios, Ludwigsburg

Ersteinspielungen proclaims the banner across the front of this CD, and indeed at the time it was released in 1992 all the works contained on it were receiving their first recordings in any form. Since then we have had two CD releases of the trio for violin, horn and piano in its original version as a concerto (one on Chandos, one on a BBC Music Magazine cover-mounted disc), as well as this year a second recording of the score in its trio version prepared by the composer herself. It has to be noted that the music sounds much better in its orchestral guise; the writing for the two concerto soloists sounds unnecessarily strenuous and over-virtuosic as part of a chamber ensemble, and the full Romantic sweep of the return of the recapitulation in the first movement sounds at once under-powered and effortful in the reading here. Similarly, the extended cadenza for the two solo instruments towards the end of the finale sounds peculiar as part of a chamber work. The overall effect is not helped by the rather cramped studio acoustic, at once over-resonant and over-close with a piano tone that can sound rather disagreeable. The playing of Renate Eggebrecht-Kupsa and Franz Draxinger is, however, excellent, and it is of interest once in a while to hear Smyth’s own reduction of her score.

The two sets of songs on this disc are something quite different, however, and both remain unchallenged as the solo recordings in the catalogue. In the case of the 1913 set of songs, I find this quite unaccountable. The setting of the poem about the benighted clown by Maurice Baring (much better as a humorous satirist and parodist than, as here, in a serious mood) nevertheless strikes a sense of pathos which even survives the over-emphatic repetition of its final lines; and the wistful setting of Ethel Carnie’s love poem Possession has a rapt sense of stillness. Best of all in this set is the final Walking song, a setting of a militant suffragette poem by Carnie which hardly needs its dedication to Christabel Pankhurst to underline its political message. The march rhythm in the piano has all the hallmarks of Elgar in his best pomp and circumstance mood, and it comes as no surprise when in the final bars after the voice has ceased with its call to blood, the piano storms in with Smyth’s own March of the women. This is a song which, despite its dated ideology and slightly unnerving militarism, still has the power to move its listeners and should surely find favour in audiences today. The piano sound too seems less overpowering, and Melinda Paulsen is a most effective soloist.

The 1907 songs for solo voice and chamber ensemble are also unexpected, but in a very different way. Settings of four poems in French, they are scored for string trio with flute, harp and percussion, and it is surely only this unusual instrumentation which has prevented them from becoming better known. At first, the style of the songs strikes the listener as Ravelian (Debussy knew and admired them) but there is also a more muscular element, especially in the opening Odelette (hardly a ‘little’ ode) and the closing Anacreonic Ode with its apostrophe to Greek heroism. The latter builds to a sterling climax, although equally notable is the delicacy of the scoring at the end of La Danse. The louder passages seriously challenge Paulsen’s voice but she maintains her melodic lines with grace and dignity throughout.

The presentation of this disc, which appears to be a straightforward reissue of the 1992 original, is somewhat of a puzzle especially for a CD devoted to the work of an English composer. It seems to be destined for a German audience, with translations of the song texts into German as well as English and the French originals for the 1907 set; and the booklet notes and artist biographies are exclusively in German with the rather odd exception of a reprint of a 1958 Musical Times article by Sir Thomas Beecham which is given in English only. There are no notes whatsoever on the music of the songs, just a quotation from a French review of the first performance (in German translation) and a brief note (in French) from Debussy. One might have hoped that in the intervening twenty-five years since its original issue something might have been done to improve such matters. Even so, this disc remains valuable for the two sets of songs, although it is surely time that they were taken in hand by a new generation of performers. The CD is advertised as Volume III of a set containing chamber music and songs by the composer.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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