MUSIC / Nothing like a dame: Anthony Payne hears the European Women's Orchestra play music by Ethel Smyth

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The Independent Culture
FOR TOO long Dame Ethel Smyth was perceived solely as a cranky Victorian lady: virtually inventing paper handkerchiefs when she used toilet rolls for that purpose (to the astonishment of fellow rail passengers) or conducting co-suffragettes with a toothbrush from her cell window when she earned herself a short stretch in Holloway prison. Abetted by some colourful volumes of autobiography, the myth tended to deflect attention from Smyth's considerable creative achievement, helped by a musical establishment that was not yet ready to take a female artist seriously. There are signs, however, that a revival of interest in her music is under way, as new generations of performers discover that music of true worth has been the subject of unreasonable neglect.

On Sunday in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, Odaline de la Martinez and her European Women's Orchestra presented two impressive works: a Mass in D and an overture to Antony and Cleopatra. This was some of the music with which Smyth introduced herself to an unsuspecting English public after returning from her studies in Leipzig, and surprisingly robust and big-boned it must have seemed to those who associated women with the production of scented fripperies.

Both pieces indicate how far Smyth had absorbed the Austro- German symphonic tradition. The overture sounds Brahmsian, but cannot easily be dismissed as plagiaristic: the invention is vigorous, and independence of mind is shown in the way the style is made to yield new growth. Its sonata structure is spaciously controlled and extended, the orchestration sonorously conceived.

Even so, the power and visionary inspiration that mark the Mass, completed only a year later, in 1891, come as something of a shock. The Austro-German tradition continues to sustain the music's process, but Bruckner now seems to loom behind some of the grander statements. Such eclecticism of style always formed part of Smyth's creative nature, however, and it would be wrong to let it hinder appreciation of what she has to offer - an easy mastery of large-scale structure, an unquestionable dynamism, and the gift to enrich the music's progress with intense visionary incident.

Smyth was never perhaps the composer to arrest attention through an original musical language, but her tone of voice and vigour of mind within the tradition with which she felt at ease are memorable, and throughout the Kyrie, Gloria and Credo of the Mass one is swept forward on an enthusiastic flood that continually reveals fresh thought.

Recognising the problem that all composers face in sustaining interest through the gentler moods of the Benedictus and Agnus Dei, De la Martinez here created a rousing conclusion by placing the Gloria last. The Pro Musica Chorus of London showed great verve and enthusiasm, while De la Martinez, nothing if not a conductor of rhythmic command and relish, drew lively playing and shaped Smyth's often explosive invention purposefully. Teresa Cahill, Tamsin Dives, Richard Edgar-Wilson and Henry Herford were the accomplished soloists.