SOMM Recordings continues its acclaimed championing of neglected British composers with Dame Ethel Smyth: Songs and Ballads – 17 vocal works with piano and chamber orchestra accompaniment composed between 1886 and 1913.
Contralto Lucy Stevens has a long relationship with Smyth, portraying the composer, political activist and writer in her widely admired stage show Ethel Smyth: Grasp the Nettle. She is joined by her long-time stage companion, pianist Elizabeth Marcus, and Odaline de la Martinez conducting the Berkeley Ensemble. All four are making their debuts on SOMM.
Published in 1886 and receiving their first recordings in English are the five Op.3 Songs and Ballads. Dedicated to Livia Frege, the singer to whom Mendelsohn and Schumann dedicated some of their finest songs, they blend images of the natural world with themes of lost love to reveal Smyth as a songwriter of already considerable gifts.
Dedicated to Smyth’s mother and exploring themes of motherhood while shot through with images drawn from troublesome dreams, the five Op.4 Lieder, settings of German texts, exalt in an emotional palette that ranges from tenderness to trenchant emotion
Three Songs from 1913, composed during the period of Smyth’s suffragette activity – which saw her jailed for two months for throwing a stone through a cabinet minister’s window – deftly combine the political and personal. With lyrics by the suffragist Ethel Carnie Holdsworth, Possession is dedicated to Emmeline Pankhurst, On the Road: a marching tune to Pankhurst’s daughter, Christabel. The Clown sets a text by Maurice Baring, whose biography Smyth wrote in 1938.
Written for voice and chamber orchestra, the Four Songs from 1908 boast exquisite orchestrations that revel in Smyth’s associations with artistic circles in France and were hailed by Debussy as “tout à fait remarquables”.
Stevens, who devised the CD’s programme, Martinez and Christopher Wiley provide informative booklet notes.
On This Recording
Four Songs for voice and chamber orchestra
- The Dance
- Anacreontic Ode
- On the Hill
- The Lost Hunter
- Near the Linden Tree
- It changes what we’re seeing
- Fair Rohtraut
- The Clown
- Possession (Dedicated to Emmeline Pankhurst)
- On the Road: a marching tune (Dedicated to Christabel Pankhurst)
Songs and Ballads (Lieder und Balladen), Op. 3*
Lieder, Op. 4
*First recordings in English
“Stevens sings effectively throughout this agreeable collection, giving an engaging character to her performance; her sincerity is never in doubt. Not surprisingly, as a contralto she convinces in her low to mid-range, producing a reliably attractive tone. … Pianist Elizabeth Marcus demonstrates her empathy with these settings in a fine performance. The studio recording has the benefit of noticeably clear, well- balanced, satisfying sound. Lucy Stevens, Christopher Wiley and Odaline de la Martinez provide the helpful booklet notes. Invaluable, too, is the inclusion of sung texts with English translations. There is much to enjoy in this collection and I will certainly return to it.” —Michael Cookson, MusicWeb International
“This timely issue provides a useful reminder of the wide range of Dame Ethel Smyth’s output. … The Four Songs for mezzo-soprano (here the admirable Lucy Stevens) flute, violin, viola, cello, harp and percussion open the CD. This unusual combination demonstrates the composers flare for textural integration. The first three songs entitled ‘Odelette’, ‘Dance’ and ‘Chrysilla’ demonstrate an almost Debussyan delicacy – an illustration of Smyth’s wide compositional range. … All the songs on this disc receive ardent, committed performances from Lucy Stevens and Elizabeth Marcus. … this is an intriguing disc, providing insights into a composer who was so much more than a caricature from the world of women’s lib. It is well worth investigating.” —Alistair MacDonald, British Music Society