Ethel Smyth

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COMPOSERS: Ethel Smyth
LABELS: CPO
WORKS: Complete Piano Works
PERFORMER: Liana Serbescu (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 999 327-2 DDD
‘Complete Piano Works’, the publicity says – and they are so complete that the discs include exercises in two-part counterpoint set by Smyth’s early composition teachers. Her workings are the sort of thing a university lecturer would expect from any outstanding student, but the shelf-life of such things is strictly limited, and most composers would have destroyed them as juvenilia. They are by nature derivative, and the fact that Brahms believed one of the movements of the Suite in E to be genuine Bach was scarcely an accolade for a young woman in the late 1870s aspiring to become a composer to be reckoned with.

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The First Sonata is similarly rooted in the past, though it’s redeemed by a third-movement funeral march of some depth which could have been written by a minor contemporary of Beethoven. There’s more meat in the Second Sonata, which foreshadows the mature Ethel Smyth, and the second disc includes the splendid, sub-Brahmsian D flat variations (one of Smyth’s finest works) and the skilfully constructed Preludes and Fugues.

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Serbescu is the ideal interpreter of this music. She makes as good a case as anyone could for the pastiche minuets, gavottes and sarabandes and gives a powerful account of the more substantial works. Wadham Sutton