On their CD Celebrating Women! The Hague String Trio present world premiere recordings by four female composers. – At once also the only works in their repertoire by members of their own sex. Perhaps they want to hitch a ride on the discussion about the still underexposed position of female composers that has flared up again after #MeToo. A theme which over the past decades was addressed again and again by a wide range of musicologists, music journalists and historians.
As one of them, I have some trouble with the title Celebrating Women! – By explicitly mentioning the gender of the composers, you unintentionally confirm the ingrained prejudice that there is such a thing as ‘female’ music. But ok, I’ll forgive the three musicians, for most concert programmes and CD’ s are still filled with music by – mostly dead – white males. Any attention to their female counterparts is a bonus.
The CD opens with the String Trio that the Australian Miriam Hyde (1913-2005) composed in 1932. With its melodious, elegant themes, this will certainly appeal to a large audience. The Suite for violin, viola and cello by Emmy Frensel-Wegener (1901-1971) from 1925 is more adventurous. Although composed seven years earlier, it sounds more modern than Hyde’s Trio. The Suite is a fresh and sparkling piece full of catchy rhythms and compelling melodies, performed with contagious zest by The Hague String Trio.
Miriam Hyde, Emmy Frensel-Wegener, Ethel Smyth and Irene Britton-Smith could not have wished for better ambassadors of their music than The Hague String Trio.Tweet
Pièce de résistance is the String Trio in D major op.6 by Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), written in 1884 by this self-willed composer and suffragette. Smyth was a friend of such greats as Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, and the British Queen Victoria was a great admirer of her music. In 1922, Smyth was the first female composer to receive the title Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 1903, the Metropolitan Opera staged her opera Der Wald; it would not be until 2016 that the New York house programmed another opera by a woman, L’amour de loin by Kaija Saariaho.
Like all of Smyth’s music, this ambitious, four-movement trio is particularly lively and varied. In an abundance of artfully woven melodic lines, she displays her perfect mastery of the string trio medium. In the process, Smyth incorporates themes from various traditions. Thus in the first movement we hear references to ‘Glory, glory, Hallelujah’, while the main theme of the second is derived from the Scottish folk song The Crab. The subdued slow third movement is an arrangement of Bach’s chorale Vater Unser im Himmelreich; the robust dance rhythm in the finale links up with British folk music.
The CD closes with the Fugue in G minor by Irene Britton Smith (1907-1999), the least known of the four. This composer of Afro-American, Crow and Cherokee descent studied composition pretty much all her life, among others with the renowned Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Her Fugue, composed in 1938, is a fine example of contrapuntal composition, the theme of which is vaguely reminiscent of Bach’s Das musikalische Opfer.
The Hague String Trio performs all four compositions to the highest possible standard. Every note is crisp and pure, not one entry is missed – the alert way in which the three musicians respond to each other and their overwhelming enthusiasm for the music irrevocably drag one along. The recording technique is also excellent. Hyde, Frensel-Wegener, Smyth and Britton-Smith could not have wished for better ambassadors.
Let’s hope this CD is not a one-off for The Hague String Trio, but rather the upbeat to an ever expanding repertoire of neglected gems by women composers.