Emilie MAYER (1812-1883)
Symphony No. 4 in B minor (reconstruction: Stefan Malzew) [36:40]
Concerto for piano and small orchestra in B flat major [29:55]
String Quartet in G minor [28:35]
Piano Sonata in D minor [28:38]
Valse ‘Tonwellen’ [4:04]
Marcia in A major [3:30]
Yang Tai (piano: sonata)
Ewa Kupiec (piano: concerto)
Neubrandenburger Philharmonie/Stefan Malzew, Sebastian Tewinkel
rec. 2012 (Symphony), 2016 (Concerto) Konzertkirche Neubrandenburg, Germany; 2017 Studio Ölbergkirche, Berlin (quartet, sonata)
CAPRICCIO C5339 [66:37 + 64:54]
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to review my first CD of music by German composer Emilie Maier, which featured her two Piano Quartets. At the time, I referred to David Barker’s earlier review which had included two of her Piano Trios, and the general consensus was that the CPO label had done the listening public a great service by making some of her music available on disc. I expressed the desire that even more works might appear in due course, and; as it happened, I didn’t have very long to wait for this to come about, courtesy this time of fellow-German record label Capriccio, with its new 2 CD set of some of her orchestral, chamber, and piano music.
Mayer’s biographical details have already been well documented, and the informative sleeve-notes fill in any blanks about her life, and the music heard on the CD. Christian Heindl, without labouring the point, reminds us of the plight of female musicians at the time, where few, for example, were given the opportunity to dedicate their lives to composing. The first CD opens with Mayer’s Symphony No 4 in B minor, one of eight she wrote during her lifetime, but with the Fifth and the Eighth now presumed lost. In fact the Fourth would have shared the same fate, had not a piano-duet version been published at the time, which has enabled conductor Stefan Malzew to reconstruct an orchestral version, even though this can, at best, only approximate to Mayer’s original intentions. The opening Allegro appassionato certainly shows the hand of a skilled and sympathetic orchestrator – even if it is Malzew’s, rather than Mayer’s – and the musical ideas are well argued, contrasting the weightiness of the opening with the lyrical nature of the second subject. Schumann and Mendelssohn are never very far away, but it is nevertheless a promising start.
The Adagio slow movement seems to lean more towards Beethoven, with its song-like melody, and even some of its modulations. Again it juxtaposes calm and romantic moments, with stirring, dramatic passages, all of which helps to hold the listener’s attention for some ten minutes. There are some attractive passages for solo instruments, too, and the movement’s main harmonic progression is strangely reminiscent of that of Mascagni’s Easter Hymn in Cavalleria Rusticana. The Scherzo, marked ‘Allegro’, returns to the world of Schumann, and Mendelssohn in particular, with its somewhat ghostly overtones, and rustic charm in the Trio, which the effective writing for the horns brings out. The Presto finale owes more to Beethoven and the stylistic transition from Classicism to Romanticism, with its catchy little theme, and concludes with a well-conceived coda to keep the listener guessing whether the symphony will end ultimately in the major key, or the home minor key.
With regards the Concerto for piano and small orchestra in B flat, which concludes the first CD, Heindl makes the point that, from the outset, critics saw rather too much of Mozart in the score, considering that it might have appeared around 1850, some five years after Schumann’s Concerto. By comparison, Mayer’s Concerto is something of an anachronism, despite a vague similarity between the ‘hunting’ themes of their respective finales. Heindl does, of course, comment that Mayer’s concerto might equally have been an altogether earlier work, but, even then, Mozart’s final piano concerto – coincidentally in the same key and with a finale that also exhibits the same 6/8-metre jauntiness – dates from 1791. Whatever the reason, and that will probably never be known, it does sound a good deal like the Austrian master, though there are turns of phrase, harmonic twists, and generally more romantic colours, of course, to confirm that, while it certainly isn’t pure Mozart, it might have come from the pen of any of his immediate, or near contemporaries. However, Heindl’s advice simply to take it as it is, is probably the best way to appreciate the work – or, by way of a musical parlour-game, you could perhaps try to identify other composers’ styles, as they seem to put in an appearance somewhere along the way. On either count, it’s a well-crafted three-movement work which at least provides half an hour’s pleasant entertainment.
CD2 opens with Mayer’s String Quartet in G minor, Op 14, which, Heindl informs us is her ninth and final quartet, if the existing opus numbers are correct. The work’s opening theme (marked ‘Allegro appassionato’) is quite striking, while the movement itself runs the course of traditional sonata-form, with a touch of Mendelssohn along the way. The Scherzo that follows is another of those light confections that we heard back in the Symphony, in the minor key. This time the calm, major-key Trio is devoid of any rustic feel, but provides an ideal contrast to the Scherzo proper, which then returns and disappears into thin air quite soon after. It was a well-considered move on Mayer’s part to follow quite a weighty first movement almost twelve minutes in length, with a delicate Scherzo and Trio lasting a little over three. Next comes the highly-expressive slow movement (Adagio con molto espressione), in the form of an affectionate chorale, which is variously decorated as the music unfolds, again with a nod in the direction of Mendelssohn. The Finale (Allegro molto) continues this apparent association, especially in the companion movement from his early Octet, and is cast as a traditional rondo with few, if any surprises along the way.
Bizarrely, the Piano Sonata in D minor is just three seconds longer than the String Quartet, almost as if it was made-to-measure, and accords with one of Mayer’s usual four-movement plans, with the Scherzo placed second, and the slow movement third, rather than with these reversed in the Symphony. As with the String Quartet, and the Symphony, Mayer is once again perfectly at home in these safe classical surroundings, rather than trying anything more adventurous in terms of formal construction. However, the Piano Sonata does reflect the fact that she was a most accomplished pianist with a well-honed technique. Mendelssohn (1809-1847) is once more ‘flavour of the month’, and nowhere more so than in the slow movement, though this is hardly surprising since he is very much Mayer’s contemporary, especially had he lived longer. The Sonata, rather like the String Quartet and Symphony is not going to set the world alight, but is well-written, highly-effective for the medium, and manages to hold the listener’s attention.
The CD finishes on a lighter touch, with two of Mayer’s salon pieces for piano, firstly the attractive, mazurka-like Valse ‘Tonwellen’ (‘Sound Waves’), and then the Marcia in A major, an equally-beguiling little miniature, though without any military connotations.
Heindl finally suggests that Emilie Mayer might now be considered as ‘one of the most important female representatives of Central European music in the 19th century’. Certainly in terms of the colour and melodic inventiveness of her writing, he may well have a case, even if she is hardly similarly as adventurous when it comes to the formal structures she uses as vehicles for this. But whether her contribution is quite on a par with that of her two contemporaries, Clara Schumann, and Fanny Mendelssohn, the jury is still out, I feel. Meanwhile, on the evidence so far, there is certainly a continuing appetite to have more recordings of her decidedly-attractive music available on CD.
Philip R Buttall