String Quartets in G major, A major and E minor
CPO 555600-2 71:41 mins
A ‘diary, the story of his soul’, was how Shostakovich’s string quartets were once described, and so often the quartet is where composers turn to explore something personal. Emilie Mayer (1812-83) had eight symphonies to her name but, after finding that her gender hampered her orchestral music gaining public performances, she turned to chamber music. The string quartet offered, perhaps, a place for her to forget the restrictions of 19th-century society.
Whatever the impulse, the result is a joy to discover. Mayer is thought to have written seven quartets, three of which, from the 1850s, appear on this wonderful recording. The Constanze Quartett has done a fine job in showing this music off at its best, with sensitive, handsome playing, beautifully recorded by CPO, a record label that has long championed rare repertoire.
The programme opens with the uplifting G major Quartet, her answer to Beethoven. Mayer, meanwhile, had a soft spot for her A major Quartet, whose ‘appealing melodic character’ was praised by the Neue Berliner Musikzeitung. And it is a thoroughly appealing work, not least thanks to its Adagio which contrasts serenity with bittersweetness. In both works, the Constanze’s sound is warm and well-blended, with plenty of space for individual lines to shine.
Yet it’s the E minor Quartet which reveals Mayer at her most striking. Two versions exist; it’s the second played here. In its handling of motifs and harmonic shifts, it sits alongside Beethoven and Schubert, and the Constanzes treat it as pure drama. Terse and melancholic, it’s a quartet that reveals a powerful creative spirit.