Smyth Serenade in D; Concerto for Violin and Horn
Much as I have enjoyed such major recordings of Dame Ethel Smyth’s music as the Mass in D (Virgin, 8/91) and the opera, The Wreckers (the latter conducted like this latest disc by Odaline de la Martinez; Conifer, 11/94), this Chandos issue of two big orchestral works strikes me as even more recommendable, not least to those who have yet to discover her music. The two works here come from opposite ends of her composing career. Though the Serenade dates from 1890, when she was already 32, it is her first major orchestral piece, while the Double Concerto for the distinctive combination of violin and horn is among her last works, dating from 1927, when she was nearing 70, and her campaigning days as a suffragist were over.
Where both of them score over those larger works I have mentioned is in the extra memorability of the thematic material. The Serenade at 35 minutes (including exposition repeat in the first of the four movements) might have qualified as a full-scale symphony, except that there is no slow movement, and the middle two movements, more lightly scored than the outer ones, are both rather like interludes, the first a jolly scherzo with a rumbustious Trio, and the second an Allegretto grazioso of the kind that Brahms often wrote in place of a scherzo. There are other places where Smyth has clearly taken Brahms as a model, though the writing is more than distinctive enough to establish its own identity, not just echoing that master. The gentleness with which the first movement starts on a barcarole-like first subject. is deceptive, for the writing is increasingly violent, culminating in a sharply rhythmic development section full of syncopations. The finale is vigorous too, rounded off with a typically positive flourish.
Written after long years of study in Leipzig and elsewhere, the Serenade is a fully mature piece, but the concerto with its rare solo combination is even more striking, above all more lyrical. After a grand opening worthy of Elgar, the soloists enter in turn on a broad melody, far more expansively argued, leading to a third contrasting theme in jolly hornpipe rhythm. The lovely slow movement, “In Memoriam”, again brings warm lyricism, with themes of Brahmsian cut sounding in context very different from Brahms. The finale starts with jagged writing for the violin, as though Smyth is finally acknowledging a debt to the twentieth century, while the horn then offers a hunting theme on rapid triplets. The exuberant mood is disturbed only by a ruminative accompanied cadenza for the soloists. One problem of the piece is balancing them, with the horn tending to merge in to the orchestral background far more than the violin. But with opulent recording and superb playing from both Sophie Langdon and Richard Watkins, not to mention the BBC Philharmonic under de la Martinez in both works, this is a delightful disc to bring home the strong musical character of Dame Ethel even more vividly than previous issues.'