August 18th marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Constitutional Amendment, granting women in the US the right to vote. A fitting time then for our release of the World Premier Recording of Ethel Smyth’s late masterpiece The Prison. Smyth left home at nineteen to study composition in Leipzig. In the company of Clara Schumann and her teacher Heinrich von Herzogenberg, she met and won the admiration of composers such as Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Dvorák, and Grieg. Smyth was the first woman to have an opera performed at the Met, in 1903. (The second was Kaija Saariaho, whose L'Amour de loin appeared there in 2016!) Smyth later became central to the Suffragette movement in England, writing the March of the Women. Her gender politics and sexuality were cause for attacks by critics, and she famously went to prison herself for throwing a stone through an MP’s window. Composed in 1930 and premiered in 1931 in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall, The Prison is a Symphony in two parts, ‘Close on Freedom’ and ‘The Deliverance’, set for soprano and bass-baritone soloists, chorus, and full orchestra. The text is taken from a philosophical work by Henry Bennet Brewster and concerns the writings of a prisoner in solitary confinement, his reflections on life and his preparations for death.
Ethyl Smyh's late work, The Prison (1929-30), is uncategorizable. The 64-minute “vocal symphony” for bass-baritone (The Prisoner) and soprano (his Soul), with chorus (philosophical commentary) is in two parts: Close To Freedom and The Deliverance. The heavy-ish text, by Smyth’s dear friend (and perhaps lover, though her relationships tended otherwise to be lesbian) Henry Bennet Brewster centers on the gloomy ruminations of a prisoner considering the end of his life, and his soul, which is guiding him toward peace. In Part 1, He, for instance speaks of his anxiety and inability to sleep, and wonders about immortality and if he will be emancipated; in Part 2, the Soul tells him the end of his struggle is near and he learns to “disband his ego”. The chorus has a further calming effect: immortality is everywhere, human passions remain. He finally finds peace. As you can see, a regular Offenbachian satire–not.
From the very opening moments – “I awoke in the middle of the night” – the mood is weighty with disquiet. The bass-baritone voice of Dashon Burton has both substance and gentleness, his attention to the text that of a Lieder singer. Violin and harp circle his words. Sarah Brailey’s Soul, from the start, sings with subtlety and a type of fleeting loveliness. She opens the second part with a solo on the words “the struggle is over”, intoning much of her words on one note while first a trio of winds, then a solo violin, then the full body of strings and chorus–all pianissimo–join her above and below. Chant? Hymn? Both, really. Smyth layers the orchestra; a brass choir during a passage about immortality makes a grand effect. Later, a painfully beautiful pastoral section precedes the Prisoner’s feeling of metaphysical freedom.
While much of it is gripping, its slow pacing and didacticism can dehumanize the story that the Prisoner and Soul are stuck in. The Prisoner’s “prison”, both metaphorical and real, is presented with such humanity and openness by Burton that his eventual spiritual freedom makes a glorious sound, despite–rather than due to–the orchestrally and chorally weighted underpinnings. Some Elgar shows up, and is not very welcome.
The performance, I suspect, could not be bettered. The New York City-based Experiential Orchestra and Chorus both perform with luscious tone and poise. James Blachly’s leadership brings the work’s lyricism to the forefront; it would be easy to over-emphasize passages but he works best within the dramatic arc of the narrative. Much of The Prison is gorgeous and unexpected – who does Smyth sound like? And while some moments seem inert, they are few and far between.
– ClassicsToday.com (10/10; Robert Levine)
Smyth’s haunting music, given here in conductor James Blachly’s new edition, is beautifully constructed and highly evocative (with quotes or allusions to earlier Smyth scores). Her orchestration is limpid and masterly, rendered lovingly here by Blachly with the Experiential Orchestra. The choral contribution is relatively minor, the focus rightly on the two soloists, but again superbly performed. The only miscalculation is Smyth’s use of ‘The Last Post’ in the concluding pages, adding a martial resonance that may jar to modern ears; to Smyth, a major-general’s daughter, it may just have been an echo of (her) youth which she wanted at this point. Magnificent sound from Chandos, too. Very strongly recommended.