Review of LNT114: Smyth, Beach and Spain-Dunk
For me the best thing about being a reviewer for MusicWeb is expanding my musical knowledge and discovering works and performers new to me. This disc provided all those elements in spades and has had such an effect on me that I shall be seeking out all the chamber compositions written by these three women.
I feel a personal sense of shame that I had never heard any chamber music by Ethel Smyth, only a string trio by Amy Beach, and, even worse, that the name of Susan Spain-Dunk was completely unknown to me. On the reverse of the liner notes it says that "Lorelt (Lontano Records Ltd) was founded in 1992 to record and dispense throughout the world the work of contemporary composers, women composers throughout history, and Latin American composers from all centuries". A record company with noble goals then (what a refreshing change!) and this disc has certainly done sterling service to these three women whose music demands to be heard.
One of the first things that struck me about Ethel Smyth's String Quartet in E Minor was how much ahead of her time this music seems to be. Written during the years 1902-1912, the music sounds fresh and belies the fact that its completion was over 90 years ago and sounds more firmly rooted in the 20th Century than one might expect coming from a middle-aged Victorian lady. She was, however, no ordinary woman but a feisty, fearless and extremely determined person who took what she saw as her responsibilities extremely seriously. The liner notes, written by conductor Odaline de la Martinez, charts Ethel Smyth's compositional periods in four distinct sections, placing this work in the second period (1892-1908). She notes that Ethel Smyth was able to "musically jump back in time" because, though this quartet had such an unusually long gestation period, so well integrated are all the movements, it is not discernible that the last two were written ten years after the first two. The period this quartet was written in was the same as that of The Wreckers, probably her most celebrated and well-known work, apart, of course, from Shoulder to Shoulder, the anthem she wrote for the Suffragette movement, of which she was a stalwart supporter, made famous again in the TV series starring Siân Phillips.
The first movement is a sumptuous feast of interwoven themes in which the instruments carry on a dialogue throughout. The second is great fun, full of invention, beginning with a cheeky-sounding tune played with much plucking of the violin, whilst the other quartet members playfully orbit around it. The slow movement is lush and gorgeous, extremely soulful and profound. The final movement, marked Allegro Energico, is just that - lively, full of interest, with memorable tunes.
I have rarely heard a chamber work that was completely new to me that has grabbed my attention so immediately and kept my interest so completely.
Amy Marcey Cheney Beach was a child prodigy, whose musical education began in earnest at 8 years of age, following public concerts she had undertaken at 7. One of her mentors was Dr. Henry Beach who she married at 18, the age at which she made her debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. As was often the case with women at the time, her husband, 23 years her senior, discouraged further public performances and, instead, directed her energies into composing. Luckily for us at least Amy spent the next several years teaching herself composition, and from 1885 to 1910, when her husband died, she wrote several of her major works, and many songs. Her Mass in E Flat, Piano Concerto and Symphony Op.32 come from this period. Later she went to Europe to re-launch her performing career and to promote her compositions. She spent three years there until the outbreak of the First World War forced her home again. The String Quartet, Op.89 was written in 1929 and is cast in one movement, though with four distinct tempo settings. It opens with a very serious melody that sounds as if it begins in the middle of a phrase. The first few bars put me very much in mind of Shostakovich's quartet writing, with thick melodic lines with sad undertones. The music then moves into a more lively mood, introducing new themes, rather than resolving the opening ones. Amongst these there are one or two that reappear throughout the rest of the work and I wondered if they were connected with the three Inuit themes the liner note says she quotes. The music then becomes more serious again and ends, as it began, with a section marked grave and sounding as if it were mid phrase as it did at the start. The whole work is an extremely satisfying whole and the melodies linger in the mind for a long time after the listening is over.
When I read the names of the three composers on this disc and noted that Susan Spain-Dunk was a completely unknown name to me I put it down to the probable fact that, no doubt (especially with such a name) like Amy Beach, she'd also be American. I reasoned that since there are so many American composers I have never heard of, I could feel a little less ashamed at my ignorance. Well, as I read the liner notes that explanation was eliminated, because to my surprise I discovered she was born in Folkestone!
Her Phantasy Quartet, as with Beach's, is in one movement, but again with four different tempo markings, beginning with a particularly forceful opening that is animated and serious but which soon becomes calm and lyrical with themes that stay in the memory. These themes are then manipulated and the work ends with a return to the slow theme that develops after the quartet's opening.
Once again I was struck by how beautiful a work this was and angry that music by such composers is all but unknown to us. At the same time the core repertoire is recorded over and over again by major record companies that put profits far and away above the exploration and dissemination of works by people such as those represented on this disc. If they felt at all responsible they could spend some of their profits exploring the byways of music rather than continually raiding their own back catalogues and churning out yet more compilation discs. Thank God for companies such as Lontano Records - I hope their resolve to devote much of their energy in promoting women composers throughout history is successful and that sales encourage others to follow suit. I was glad to read that at least Ethel Smyth was recently featured as 'Composer of the Week' on Radio 3 and hope that that will encourage listeners to buy this record, especially since this very recording of her quartet was broadcast.
The Archaeus Quartet, made up of three women and a man, are superb in their musicianship and clearly love the music, and their obvious enthusiasm for it shines through. I cannot remember a record I've enjoyed more this year or one I felt compelled to listen to time after time - a fabulous disc!