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Thursday, April 8, 2021

Ethel Smyth - String Quartet; String Quintet (Mannheimer Streichquartett)


Composer: Ethel Smyth
  • (01) String Quartet in E minor
  • (05) String Quintet in E major, Op. 1

Mannheimer Streichquartett
Andreas Krecher & Claudia Hohorst, violins
Niklas Schwarz, viola
Armin Fromm, cello
Joachim Griesheimer, cello

Date: 1996
Label: cpo



Reviewing the two-disc Troubadisc set of Dame Ethel Smyth’s chamber music, which included both these works, MEO noted how shaming it is that the rediscovery of this music has had to be left to non-British forces. This splendid CPO issue reinforces that sad message. The Mannheim Quartet, reinforced in the early Quintet by the cellist Joachim Griesheimer, give superb performances of keenly inventive works which belie the old idea that Smyth was influenced above all in her chamber music by Brahms. As is pointed out in the note (poorly translated from the German), the delightfully fresh first movement of the Quintet, written in 1881 when Smyth was in her mid-twenties, keeps reminding one of Dvorak, notably the Op. 96 Quartet and the New World Symphony. Yet those two works were written after this, not before, and one wonders just what the influence was.

In the five-movement scheme the outer movements are by far the most substantial, with the three middle movements as contrasting interludes, a delicate Andantino, a jolly Scherzo and – most remarkably – a raptly lyrical Adagio which in a tantalizingly brief three-and-a-half minutes has the composer taking on the role of visionary, with a nod in the direction of the Cavatina from Beethoven’s B flat Quartet, Op. 130. After all, less than ten years later Smyth’s ambitious Mass in D nodded similarly in the direction of the greatest D major Mass, the Missa solemnis.

Delightful and refreshing as the Quintet is, it is the Quartet, begun in 1902 but not completed till ten years later, which demonstrates the composer’s originality most clearly. It was bold of her, instead of starting with an Allegro, to have an easily lilting Allegretto lirico as a sonata-form first movement. It is the more remarkable when you realize that this predominantly gentle and sweet inspiration dates from the years when Smyth was most active in the suffragette cause, finally getting herself put in prison. No rabble-rousing here. The second movement is a jaunty scherzo with a hint of English folk music in the themes, and the lively finale, starting with a fugato, also has an English flavour. The beautiful, extended slow movement, like the brief Adagio of the Quintet, is peacefully lyrical, again belying the composer’s often violent personality. These are two highly enjoyable works which richly deserve to return to the repertory, and these outstanding performances, well-recorded in an ideal and generous coupling, should by rights provide just the spur needed.

-- Edward Greenfield, 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.


The Mannheim String Quartet was founded in 1975 in Mannheim, and owes its name not only to its birthplace but also to the "Mannheim School", which was significantly involved in the development of the string quartet genre, and closely associated with the music of Mozart. The Quartet won many prizes during its student years and went on to establish itself firmly in the German and the international music scene. The quality of their recordings has been recognized by prizes such as the Echo Klassik and the Deutsche Schallplattenpreis. The Quartet is currently resident in the city of Essen.


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