June 21, 2012
(++++) THE PLEASURES OF REDISCOVERY
Emilie Mayer: Sonatas for Violin and Piano in A minor (Op. 18), E minor (Op. 19) and E-flat major. Aleksandra Maslovaric, violin; Anne-Lise Longuemare, piano. Feminae Records. $18.99.
Two patterns converge in this very interesting and very well-played CD. One is the rediscovery of very fine 19th-century composers – perhaps not ones of the first water, but certainly ones deserving far better than complete disappearance. The other pattern is that of performers or their organizations creating their own niche CD labels – which, in this case, means that violinist Aleksandra Maslovaric’s Feminae Records is following in the footsteps of Gil Shaham’s Canary Classics. The same technologies that may soon bring about the death of the CD and the end of musical recording in any physical form are currently, in what may be the twilight of the medium, making it much easier for individuals and small organizations to create CD lines highlighting specific performers, repertoire or both.
None of this would matter much if the works being presented in these “niche CDs” were unworthy. Musical tastes do change, as anyone who knows Gilbert and Sullivan will remember: when Gilbert wrote in The Mikado of “Bach, interwoven with Spohr and Beethoven,” Spohr was indeed held in esteem as high as that of Beethoven and Bach. But if Spohr’s reputation diminished considerably over the years, that of Emilie Mayer (1812-1883) essentially vanished. A very well-regarded composer in her time, one of those prodigies who seem to emerge with disconcerting frequency in music (she started writing music at about age seven), Mayer composed symphonies, concert overtures, songs, and a variety of chamber works – surprising some Victorian-era critics with the “manliness” of her pieces and their very skillful workmanship. The new CD makes possible a more-nuanced view of Mayer, influenced by what she wrote rather than who (and what gender) she was. On the basis of this disc, Mayer never fully escaped the influence of Mendelssohn and did not always solve musical problems in particularly innovative ways – but she wrote solid, expressive and often highly interesting chamber music that is very definitely worthy of performance.
Mayer’s Op. 19 sonata is particularly impressive. The very extended first movement explores both emotion and some tonally interesting regions, with the violin more prominent than the piano but both instruments having a good deal to say. The second movement, a scherzo, is less satisfactory, with mundane runs in the violin and ornamentation that sounds extraneous, although the unexpectedly quiet ending is almost magical. The Adagio does not really plumb expressive depths – it tries too hard to assert a profundity that it does not possess – but it is well-made and has some attractive piano figurations. The finale, which plunges intensely into the minor from the beginning, is more emotive, although violin and piano seem sometimes to be at cross-purposes. The movement remains in the minor until the end, concluding with both forcefulness and beauty.
The other two sonatas are shorter and less substantial. The E-flat major, which was never published, opens with a rather bucolic Allegro in which violin and piano assume fairly equal roles (although the recording overemphasizes the violin – an issue throughout the CD). The Andante is pleasant enough, redolent of the salon, and the third movement – marked Rondo – has a nice lilt and some rhythmic vitality, although it is something less than fleet-footed. The finale is the most interesting movement, beginning with an improvisational feel and in a slow tempo that turns rather abruptly into the faster one of the movement’s main section – which slows down in the middle to an extended, aria-like passage before the speedier section returns to close out the work. The heartiness of the A minor sonata lies somewhere between those of the other two. As in the other sonatas, the opening movement is the longest, although in this sonata the four movements are actually fairly evenly balanced. The initial Allegro con brio never quite settles down to either drama or lyricism, moving somewhat uncertainly back and forth between the two. The second movement, which opens Adagio and then rapidly becomes an effective Allegro agitato, is a high point of the sonata, with attractive use of pizzicato (a technique that Mayer rarely calls for in these sonatas). The Andante is another pleasantly expressive piece that provides respite from the activity of the previous movement, although it does not have a great deal to say on its own. The finale, though, is quite well done: Mayer has considerable skill at conclusions. From the piano solo with which it begins, through a series of well-formed episodes in which both violin and piano have sections of considerable virtuosity with something of a perpetuum mobile feel, this finale makes for a very effective conclusion, although it is perhaps a touch too well-mannered to be fully involving.
Maslovaric and Anne-Lise Longuemare make a good pair in these pieces, despite the overly close miking of the violin, which is an irritant and not entirely fair to the musical balance of the works. Certainly the performers make a strong case for Mayer’s music, and certainly it would be good to hear more of it, from them and others. In fact, most of Mayer’s earlier works were orchestral, and they may well be worth reviving. In these sonatas, Mayer is not highly innovative, but she shows that she absorbed the influences of her time well and came up with some new ways to present her ideas; and if those ideas themselves are not especially profound, neither are they deserving of anything close to the total obscurity in which they have languished for more than a century.