Four Songs; Songs and Ballads; Lieder, Op. 4; Three Songs
Lucy Stevens (contralto), Elizabeth Marcus (piano); Berkeley Ensemble/Odaline de la Martinez
SOMM Recordings SOMMCD 0611 65:00 mins
The young Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) had to battle her parents for permission to study music in far-off Leipzig, but when she finally won, she found herself in the heartland of late-Romantic European high art. She even had a brush with Brahms, who, she reported, immediately assumed her pieces to be that of George Henschel, who had sent them his way.
But over the years, influenced on the one hand by German music, on the other by French, and furthermore possessing a powerful determination to forge her own path, Smyth produced many songs that could hold their own in any Lieder recital. This recording follows her writing in this genre from early pieces of the 1870s through to 1913, and the Songs and Ballads Op. 3 receive their world premiere recording.
The crowning glory of this collection, nevertheless, is the opening work, the Four Songs for voice and chamber orchestra (1908) – originally written in French – that embrace the colouristic influence of Debussy, creating a deft balance of flute, harp, percussion and strings. Whether this recording represents the ultimate advocacy for these long-neglected gems is another matter. It is a wonderful chance to bring them to wider attention, but Lucy Stevens’s voice does not always serve them to quite the ideal degree. Diction and expressive definition seem occasionally unfocused, and there are some moments that sound technically insecure.
The Berkeley Ensemble under Odaline de la Martinez and the piano playing of Elizabeth Marcus nevertheless provide strong support that supplies some of the necessary colour.