More Emilie Mayer

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MAYER: Piano Trios in B min., Op. 16 & D, Op. 13. Notturno for Violin & Piano / Trio Vivente: Anna Katherina Schreiber, vln; Kristin von der Goltz, cello; Jutta Ernst, pno / CPO 555 029-2

Following my discovery of Emilie Mayer’s music through her first two symphonies—and other works online—I decided to go back to 2017 and review this album of her piano trios. I ignored it when it first came out because, I figured, she would be just another competent but uninteresting Romantic composer, as so many of those whose work is revived today out of oblivion are; but coming to know her through her symphonies and string quartets, I decided to take the plunge.

From the first section of the Piano Trio in B minor, I knew that I was in for a treat. Here again was Mayer’s gutsy, very non-feminine musical voice channeling Beethoven and Schumann in her own unique way, throwing in startling, abrupt key changes whenever and wherever she liked. I tell you truly, this woman was shafted in her time and shafted by posterity. She definitely deserves to be much better known and appreciated.

One thing I’ve noticed is that Mayer’s best music seems to be set in minor keys. The use of the minor seemed to bring out the best in her, but as with Beethoven and Schumann this shouldn’t be taken too literally, since she constantly shifts back and forth between the minor and major, even in the slow movements which often begin, and stay, in the major for long stretches. In certain respects, she almost seemed to be the precursor of such composers as Strauss and Mahler, though I doubt that either one of them knew her works. It was, you might say, a trend of the time, but since Emilie’s music came out during the 1850s, ‘60s and ‘70s, she was clearly ahead of them. Indeed, the slow movement of the Op. 13 Trio is as much in the minor as that of the Op. 16.

Trio Vivente is one of those modern chamber groups that plays with little vibrato in the strings and an overall lean, very rhythmically direct profile. Since rubato and rallentando were part and parcel of the 19th century (as was string portamento), of course these performances are not stylistically authentic, but who cares? Mayer’s very emotional approach to writing is brought out fully and very satisfyingly, and that’s all that counts.

She also seemed to be a stickler for the four-movement form. I’ve yet to hear a symphony or chamber work by her that is not in four discrete movements. Much of the time, the second movement is the Scherzo and the third movement the slow one, but in both of these trios she reverses this, so it wasn’t a constant, but her amazing leaps of key and pitch were. Yet I think that what surprises me most was her penchant for strong and oftimes syncopated rhythms; she clearly had a restless musical mind and refused to be pigeonholed into writing “women’s music” in the pejorative sense of the term. She was clearly the equal of any male composer of her time, and this includes Brahms, and she wanted to assert her individuality.

The Notturno for violin and piano seems to be the one piece of hers that is most frequently played, possibly because it’s short and only involves two instruments. Yet even here, Mayer’s keen ear for rhythm and color serves her well; it is by no means one of those placid drawing-room ballads a la Amy Beach, but a meaty piece that holds your attention.

This disc, too, is highly recommended. If you like really creative Romantic-era music, you’ve got to discover Emilie Mayer!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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