I am sure Ethel Smyth would not be turning in her grave so much as hurling lid, nails and shovelfuls of earth about in her eagerness to get at the mysogenist ‘music critic’ who wrote this —which I found on the internet: “She composed a rather anaemic Concerto for Horn, Violin and Orchestra in 1927 trying to imitate the lyrical Brahms . . .”
Tasmin Little, I’m sure too, would have something vocal to say about that nonsense. From the performance perspective rather than the feminist one, at least so I imagine, since last time I had a pint in the pub with her and her husband neither Mrs Pankhurst nor Germaine Greer happened to crop up in the conversation. (I can’t drop many names, so you’ll let me off, won’t you, this time?) Metaphorically, in Prom 24, she chained herself to the musical railings in full wholehearted support of Dame Ethel.
As far as ‘modern’ English composers go, especially female ones, Dame Ethel is perhaps a little too early for me; I haven’t really ventured further back than Elizabeth McConchy, and I can’t say I made much at all of listening to bits of The Wreckers years ago, but I regret, hearing this performance, not having paid more attention to her before the 150th anniversary of her birth.
I have always admired Tasmin Little’s ability to burrow into the essential heart of a piece and then to stretch its sinews and muscles until it snaps into resolute perfection, let alone her seemingly easy way of learning, and then championing in her playing, relatively obscure or underplayed compositions, though heaven knows, there’s a very tough self-discipline gained at the Menuhin school that underlies that. I only wish she appeared much more often at the Proms instead of all those teenybopper technically perfect, but emotionally absent, Suzuki school violinists we so often end up with.
Smyth, in her Concerto, Little is quoted as saying, after an initial hint at Brahms, "goes off into her own sound world” (to me, for tantalising moments, tangentially closer to Les Six and Honnegger rather than early twentieth century Austria or Germany). “The music is meaty and expansive, with attempts to do something radical.” Exactly what that radicalism is, is not so easy to describe, but Little and Richard Watkins played in such close companionship and created such tension, it was unmistakeably there. It is by no means just the pretty piece that Andrew Achenbach might like us to believe from his Prom notes.
The first movement, the Allegro moderato, introduces all the strands that then wind themselves as strongly as an anchor chain through the two following movements. Underneath snatches of haunting lyricism and dance-like passages from the violin, there is a brooding presence emphasised turn and turn about by violin and horn. Little created the initial tension in this movement with a harder tone than I expected from her, but one that set the scene perfectly for the Adagio.
This second movement is termed “Elegy (in memoriam)”, but for whom or for what, I have to admit I do not know. But in terms of Little's and Watkins’ performance, any biographical detail was rendered irrelevant. For all the springing dancelike melody in the middle, this again had a looming, almost threatening tone, before a return to an earlier theme from the first movement, a presence that inescapably reminded you of the Somme and the horrors of WW1, achieved with surprising complexity, and technical difficulty, in the passages between horn and violin. There was some inkling here of Vaughan Williams but with the iciness of the Sinfonia Antartica, not the pastoral mode.
And then the amazing allegro. Rolls of worrying timpani and hunting calls from the horn , not the cheery View Halloa of English huntsmen in pink coats, but transformed into miltary calls. Or the horn calls of men who hunt, if not other men, at the very least wolves or bears. Followed by a reiteration of the dance liketheme from earlier, in a saoring duet between horn and violin that was both almost vocal and dramatic, theatrical and operatic, tender and harsh, moderated by gentle, barely audible chords from the harp, until you can no longer be sure whether the horn or the violin is the real protagonist, and the last strains of dance and the final orchestral chords end the movement.
This concerto, as it was performed on Monday night, did indeed possess an unexpected radicalism, emphasised by the tautness of the soloists’ phrasing and above all by the sheer tension they created between them. It spoke of a depth of concentration and commitment, of thoughtfulness and imagination that made this a thoroughly fascinating and absorbing, and even unexpectedly challenging piece. It is all too easy to imagine how in less committed hands it could end up as a rather flimsy sub-Brahmsian ‘English’ piece of fluff. (And how Dame Ethel the Suffragette would have growled at me for the implications of that phrase!) But after this, it cannot ever now be played so it sounds even palely "anaemic" (I hope) without arousing sheer derision.
The applause was enthusiastic, and deservedly so. My last note as I tried to absorb this superb performance was just “Wow!” I’m afraid Dame Ethel might not quite approve of that as a final judgement, but if she’s reading this somewhere, I hope she’ll forgive me. I’m likely to have enough problems in the afterlife without her going after me with the sharp end of a broken baton as well . . .
(R3 relay) Prom 24: Dame Ethel Smyth, Concerto for Horn and Violin
I'm probably angrier about this than either Tasmin Little or Richard Watkins will be; I know very well they get used to it and shrug it off, but it is just yet another clever-clogs piece of fatuity. And it's the kind of writing that used to mean I —as a reviewer well out of the mainstream—meant I had to constantly almost re-audition myself every time I met a performer in case I turned out to be someone who would do that kind of thing. I'm amazed now I think about it that so many have treated me so well when they are up against this kind of thing.
Photo of Dame Ethel in, shall we say, "challenging" mood and fetching tam o'shanter, courtesy of the Daily Telegraph website.