Alice Mary Smith

0 of 5 stars

Andante for clarinet and orchestra
Symphony in C minor
Symphony in A minor

Angela Malsbury (clarinet)

London Mozart Players
Howard Shelley

Recorded on 24 & 25 May 2004 in St Silas, Kentish Town, London

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: February 2005
Duration: 66 minutes

As the booklet note suggests, the musical likeness is to Mendelssohn. But Alice Mary Smith (1839-1884) is her own woman, and also ahead of protocol as far as women and society was concerned in Victorian England. This lady had the temerity to write a symphony, the first by a British woman, one that pre-empted a later debate as to “whether a woman could ever compose a great work of art”. Define ‘work of art’. Define ‘great’.

Smith wrote that ‘first’ symphony, the one in C minor (placed last on the disc), in 1863. It’s an interesting work that opens with a spacious Grave introduction that leads to a harmonious Allegro that reminds more of Schubert than Mendelssohn. The scoring is economical but assured, and although there are occasionally ‘bare bones’ of sound and invention, there is a spirit that one can be sympathetic to. The outer movements are the most substantial and the middle ones are brief and intermezzo-like, the Allegro amorevole has a winsome elegance, even the merest anticipation of Elgar’s ‘light’ music, and the scherzo is varied if mostly joyous and scampers merrily along.

The Symphony in A minor, from 1876, is a non-submitted entry for a write-a-symphony competition that Smith composed under a pseudonym (the booklet note doesn’t reveal if this was a masculine nom de plume!). The first movement has drive, incision and modulating lyricism; the slow movement is rather stilted but blossoms at its mid-point; the minuet is folksy and fleet (slightly gavotte-like); and the finale is gallant. A likeable and enjoyable piece.

The pleasant-enough Andante is Smith’s own arrangement of a movement from her Clarinet Sonata. Attractively curved and detailed it may be, but there is little that is memorable save for a scale figure that reminds of Mendelssohn’s Die Schöne Melusine, although as the coda approaches Smith throws out some unanticipated and beguiling bon mots.

So, genial music from a composer who succumbed to typhoid fever aged just 45, which is played here in these first (and last?) recordings with conviction, skill and a beguiling range of colours and dynamics. The sound-quality nicely balances warmth and detail, and the music itself is undemanding if delightful to listen to.

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