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Smyth: The Prison

Sarah Brailey (soprano), Dashon Burton (bass-baritone); Experiential Chorus & Orchestra/James Blachly (Chandos)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

The Prison
Sarah Brailey (soprano), Dashon Burton (bass-baritone); Experiential Chorus & Orchestra/James Blachly
Chandos CHSA 5279 (CD/SACD)   64 mins

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There has been renewed interest in Ethel Smyth’s output in recent years, and this premiere recording of her late work The Prisondemonstrates why the resurrection is justified. Smyth (1858-1944) left England at 17 to compose in Leipzig, where she worked alongside contemporaries including Clara Schumann. The Prison was written in 1930, received its first performance in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall and thereafter
languished in obscurity – until James Blachly came along. Realising the worth of the piece, Blachly oversaw a new edition of the score, used in this performance with the Experiential Orchestra and Chorus.

The Prison is an hour-long oratorio split into two parts, ‘Close on Freedom’ and ‘The Deliverance’. The text, drawn from a work by Henry Bennet Brewster, explores a man’s reflections while in solitary confinement (both literal and in the metaphorical sense). Much has been made about Smyth’s own stint in the clink for throwing a stone through an MP’s window as part of her contribution to the suffragette movement, and the recording is released to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in the US.

There is a hint of Britten (‘Voices sing of immorality’ is almost Grimesian) in the brooding early sections. Smyth writes exquisitely for woodwind (particularly ‘The first glimmer of dawn’; ‘The prisoner understands his own immortality’). Bass-baritone Dashon Burton is convincing as the Prisoner, while soprano Sarah Brailey’s honeyed tone is suited to the role of Soul.

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Claire Jackson