Emilie Mayer’s Piano Quartets

MAYER: Piano Quartets in Eb & G / Mariani Klavierquartett / CPO 555 094-2

I consider Emilie Mayer to be one of the greatest unknown composers I’ve discovered in the past five or six years, due to the recordings of her first two symphonies on CPO by Leo McFall and her piano tries and nocturnes on the same label.

To a certain extent, however, the Piano Trio in Eb was a bit of a disappointment for me. Yes, it clearly channels Beethoven, as do some of her other works,  but in this instance she adds nothing of particular import to this style. Yes, there are a few Beethovenish outbursts in the minor that I enjoyed very much, and the piece is well constructed, but much of it sounds too much like “ladylike salon music” for my taste. In short, it lacks individuality.

I’m also not very fond of the Mariani Piano Quartet’s constant use of straight tone, which robs the music of some of its vitality. But of course I know I’m tilting at windmills to complain about the constant use of straight tone; it’s here to stay and we, as consumers of classical music, have to shut up and swallow this bitter pill, but I’m not going down without a fight. When will these people ever concede that I’m right and their professors are wrong, that olden violinist used straight tone for the fast passages but vibrato for held notes? The answer is Never. They’ve made up their minds and by God they’re sticking to it. On top of this, Gerhard Vielhaber is playing one of those anemic early pianos that have no richness or power, and this, too, affects the quality of the performances. Bite me.

The pallid tone of both strings and keyboard is especially telling in the first quartet’s “Scherzo,” set primarily in the minor and quite obviously meant to be played with energy and passion. Using these particular instruments, the Mariani Quartet plays with energy but the passion is largely mitigated. It’s hard to make such pallid old instruments “speak” with any authority. I think they may actually know this but are dead set on using them anyway to prove how “mainstream” they are. And it’s a pity, because these musicians sound like they know what they’re doing musically. It’s just that the instruments defeat their intentions.

For every good moment, like those in the “Scherzo,” there are weak and ineffective ones like this quartet’s “Adagio” movement. Here, Mayer constructs a Pretty Tune that Everyone Can Hum on the way out, but both the principal theme and its variations are played by the Mariani strings as if they were MIDIS, a thin, almost electronic-sounding tone with neither body nor beauty. It’s just an ugly whining sound played over the anemic piano.

I really wish I could be more positive about this recording because I really do admire Mayer as a composer, but I just can’t. Perhaps you can tolerate this whiny crap better than I can. If so, you’ll probably get a lot more out of it than I did.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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