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Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Ethel Smyth - Complete Piano Works (Liana Șerbescu)


Composer: Ethel Smyth

  • (01) Four 4-part Dances
  • (05) Sonata No. 1 in C major
  • (09) Two Canons
  • (11) Invention in D major
  • (12) Suite in E major
  • (16) Sonata No. 2 in F sharp minor
  • (01) Sonata No. 3 in D major
  • (03) Aus der Jugendzeit!!
  • (04) Piano Piece in E major
  • (05) Variations in D flat major on an Original Theme
  • (06) Prelude and Fugue in F sharp major
  • (07) Prelude and Fugue in C major

Liana Șerbescu, piano
Date: 2000
Label: cpo



Ethel Smyth gave up writing piano music at the age of 22, but what we have here is by no means a collection of her immature juvenilia. True, she was a late starter, but the period of two years that it took to persuade her father to let her study music (he said that he would sooner see her in her grave than become a musician) must have toughened and matured an already determined and musical young woman. You can hear this in the Four-Part Dances, the Canons and the Suite in E. They are all student pieces, but during those two frustrating years while she tried to change her father’s mind by hunger strikes and vows of silence, she must surely have worked in private at harmony and counterpoint: how else in her first weeks at the Leipzig Conservatoire could she have transformed a dry exercise in canon by inversion into such a beautifully poetic nocturne (the first of the two Canons) or, when asked to write a minuet in the style of Bach (the third movement of the Suite), written instead such a gentle evocation of Purcell?

Of the bigger works here, the First Sonata is another exercise, this time in the manner of Haydn, but with unexpected shifts of direction that are already characteristic of Smyth, and a dark, Brahmsian elegy as the slow movement. The Second Sonata has bigger gestures, more personal emotion (again, most notably in the slow movement, another nocturne), while the two-movement Third Sonata, which Liana Serbescu aptly suggests could be called Smyth’s “Pastoral Sonata”, sounds perfectly mature. Gently Brahmsian but purposeful lyricism gives way to a more Schubertian vein in the first movement, while the second is a scherzo with much use of skilful and enjoyable syncopation. The Variations are even better, the theme cleverly devised for its purpose, the variations themselves building strongly to an eloquent and dramatic concluding sequence. The two Preludes and Fugues are also very fine, really creatively unifying the two sections into sonata-like structures with double developments.

All this music was written a whole decade before Smyth began to make her mark in London as a composer. The collection adds a great deal to what we know about her and inevitably raises a good many questions – if she wrote this well for the piano, why did she stop? If her student works are so accomplished, is it not high time that the works that succeeded them were explored? My one reservation is that these performances are patchy: at times very stiff, with clumpy rhythms and a heavy left hand. Some of Smyth’s ardour and fantasy are understated, and those are just the qualities for which I am learning to value her. Still, the recordings are good, and if this collection awakens interest in Smyth, or encourages a more poetic pianist to take up the Variations, the Preludes and Fugues or the Second or Third Sonatas, it will have earned much gratitude.

-- Michael Oliver, Gramophone


Ethel Smyth (22 April 1858 – 8 May 1944) was an English composer and a member of the women's suffrage movement. Despite that her father was very much opposed to her making a career in music, Smyth was determined to become a composer, studied with a private tutor, and then attended the Leipzig Conservatory, where she met many composers of the day. Her compositions include songs, works for piano, chamber music, orchestral and concertante works, choral works, and operas. Smyth was made a DBE in 1922, being the first female composer to be awarded a damehood.


Liana Șerbescu (born August 25, 1934 in Bucharest) is a Romanian pianist, piano pedagogue and musicologist.


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