Smyth and Mendelssohn CD reviews


SMYTH SONGS AND BALLADS: Stevens / Marcus / Berkeley Ensemble / Martinez (Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0611) ★★★

Lucy Stevens is an actor and singer acclaimed for her one-woman shows including Grasp the Nettle based on the life of composer Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944). A fascinating life too: trained at Leipzig Conservatory and the first woman to have an opera produced at Covent Garden. A solid Victorian upbringing but a rebel; bisexual and a suffragette jailed in Holloway for her political activities. Stevens, with a powerful contralto voice, sings a wide variety of Smyth's songs accompanied in Four Songs, by the Berkeley Ensemble under Odaline de la Martine, and in the rest by pianist Elizabeth Marcus her musical partner from the Smyth stage show. I expect that was an entertaining evening but on disc it doesn't work – the musical material isn't strong enough. The early works are twee and the Lieder like diluted Brahms. Without the show's dramatic context political songs like On the Road sound merely bombastic.

Norman Stinchcombe

MENDELSSOHN: Stankov Ensemble / RPO Lerner (Meridian Records CDE 84556) ★★★

Pairing Mendelssohn's G minor Piano Concerto and his Concerto for Violin, Piano and Orchestra in D minor is highly unusual on disc. The piano concerto is a mature work but the double concerto was composed by an amazingly precocious 14-year-old. Ivo Stankov (violin) and his brother Lachezar (piano) perform the composer's later version for full orchestra, ably played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Linus Lerner. It's not a virtuoso work and so suits the brothers, regular ensemble performers, perfectly. Occasionally prolix, the twenty-minute opening allegro runs out of steam, but overall it's a pleasant piece, charmingly played. Lachezar Stankov and Lerner carry over this laid back style to the piano concerto which would benefit from more urgency and drive. The opening movement doesn't live up to Mendelssohn's con fuoco direction nor is the finale really presto. Stephen Hough's recording with the CBSO (Hyperion) shows how exciting it can be.

Norman Stinchcombe

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