Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D (1891) is a major choral utterance that ought to be better known and more widely performed. As a grandiloquent Mass setting which was clearly inspired by, and modelled upon, Beethoven’s Missa solemnis (1824), it is curious that it has not been taken up more enthusiastically by choral societies. Given its dimensions it is really best suited to the concert hall rather than church, despite Smyth’s interest in Anglo-Catholic liturgy, and her hope that it might be performed in an Anglican cathedral.
Although not as demanding as Beethoven’s setting, it still can – and should – make a big effect, especially with percussion often adding a more triumphal and celebratory mood, whilst managing to avoid anything vulgar or brash. In fact, the work starts more solemnly, rising from the murky depths in a minor-key polyphonic haze – seamlessly and beautifully executed by the BBC Symphony Chorus – that recalls the emotionally traumatised, benumbed opening of Brahms’s German Requiem. Sakari Oramo sustains a dramatic and commanding breadth in the rest of the Kyrie, notably so where the hefty and portentous passage over a pedal point harks back to similar stretches at the conclusions of the second and third movements of the German Requiem.
Despite the turn to the major key for the subsequent four movements, Oramo keeps his sights on the Missa solemnis with the BBC Symphony Orchestra as the guiding spirit of this interpretation of the work, demonstrated in the dignified and reverential bearing they bring to it, from the jaunty but still weighty purpose of the Credo (driven initially by a similar rhythmic impulse as Beethoven’s) to the noble introspection of the Sanctus. The BBC Chorus come thrillingly to the fore again for the explosion of the plea “miserere nobis” in the Agnus Dei, and the rousing contrapuntal conclusion to the Gloria on “Gloria Dei Patri” – both also echoing their Beethovenian prototypes, although Smyth directs that the latter movement is to be performed last of all, in order to give the Mass a triumphant ending, but that was normal in the celebration of the Eucharist in Smyth’s time in any case, as the Book of Common Prayer places the Gloria last, unlike the Catholic Mass.
Sometimes a touch more clarity in the choral texture would have aided the music’s course, such as at “Laudamus te” in the Gloria, where the basses’ line becomes lost amongst the orchestra, or more drive and ecstasy to give the work more thrust, as in parts of the Credo. But on the whole the weight and gravitas of this reading is impressive and bears its own structural logic. The vocal soloists all make distinctive contributions, from soprano Susanna Hurrell’s tender interjection before the “Et homo factus est” of the Credo, the unfeigned piety of the mezzo part in the Sanctus by Catriona Morison, to the comparatively more expressive, if nasal-toned, fervour of Ben Johnson’s tenor solo to Duncan Rock’s reassuring presence on the baritone line in the Gloria.
The disc opens with an atmospheric and buoyant account of the Overture to Smyth’s three-act opera The Wreckers, whose evocative themes make the piece stand out as almost a tone poem in its own right, with the broad, climactic melody played with indulgent rubato by the BBCSO. This is a greatly rewarding disc both on its own terms and as a follow up to Beethoven’s masterpiece.