SSaturday’s train strike kept me from going to London so I listened to the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo’s Chorus Prom on Radio 3 instead. ‘Ethel Smyth with a performance of her Mass in D, written in 1891, and premiered two years later, also at Albert Hall.
An imposing work, it was begun in 1889 after Smyth returned to the UK after a decade in Germany, and is very well written in a European tradition that goes back through Brahms to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, also in the key of D. In part, this is an affirmation of Smyth’s return to Anglicanism (it didn’t last), though it was also heavily influenced by her relationship with the Catholic Pauline Trevelyan, from whom she was in love. Yet he nevertheless rebels, iconoclasticly, against liturgical tradition by tearing the Gloria out of context and placing it last for purely musical reasons. Stylistically more consistent and less derivative than its sequel The Wreckers, it is also less immediate, hampered by a certain haughty stiffness in places, as off-putting as it is impressive.
A long-time admirer of the score, Oramo conducted it wonderfully well, however, bringing a great deal of seriousness to the Kyrie and imbuing the Credo and Gloria ceremonies with considerable grandeur. The choral singing was equally splendid in its weight, attack and neat dynamic nuances. Although Smyth’s writing for soloists is sometimes thankless, the emotional core comes with the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei, performed as consecutive arias for mezzo (Bethan Langford, lovable), soprano (Nardus Williams) and tenor (Robert Murray, sometimes energetic). Bass Božidar Smiljanić has done great things with the little elsewhere that Smyth gives him.
Its counterpart was Debussy’s Nocturnes, neatly executed and played with scrupulous clarity. The clouds drifted with cold elegance. Oramo took Holidays at a reasonable speed, allowing the tensions to build gradually without losing the momentum of the music. Although the female voices of the BBC Symphony Chorus sometimes sounded too prominent on the radio in Sirens (perhaps things were different in the room), Debussy’s seascape ebbed and flowed with a beauty that was both cold and sultry.