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Emilie MAYER (1812-1883)
Piano Quartet in E flat major [29:44]
Piano Quartet in G major [33:00]
Mariani Klavierquartett
rec. 2016 Kammermusikstudio des SWR, Stuttgart, Germany
CPO 555 094-2 [62:49]

I hadn’t come across the music of German-born Emilie Mayer before now, so it was good to get acquainted with two of her chamber music pieces, as well as find out more about the German composer herself, via the excellent CD sleeve-notes by Almut Runge-Woll, and their English translation by J Bradford Robinson. Here it does work so much better when companies like Lower-Saxony-based cpo label uses a translator, whose first language is English.

As with the vast majority of CD releases today of works by composers who, for whatever reason, have tended to lapse into oblivion, Runge-Woll will do his utmost to make as good a case for Mayer as possible. To be fair, in the 1850s it would not really have been possible for a woman to lead the life of a professional composer, partly because it would have been far more difficult for her to receive proper training in composition, unlike the male of the species, as well as, of course, because of a woman’s perceived position at the time. This is made abundantly clear from the following article in the Allgemeine deutsche Musikzeitung (‘German General Music Journal’) of 1880, which states: ‘…men are the repositories of original creative material, while women work hard to cultivate that which already exists’. Runge-Woll, in further seeking to attest to Mayer’s importance, also mentions her abundant prolificacy – piano music, chamber music comprising some seven violin sonatas, twelve cello sonatas, six piano trios, the present two piano quartets, seven string quartets, and two string quintets – eight full-scale symphonies, a piano concerto, seven overtures, a number of Lieder, and the opera Die Fischerin. But even in terms of extremely impressive output, ‘size isn’t everything’, and her position today really can be judged only on its musical merits. To that end, her present discography sadly is very limited. In July 2017 Music Web International published David Barker’s review of Mayer’s Piano Trios, where he commented that, while a few of her other works were available on disc, they were only on fairly obscure labels.

Both piano quartets were written towards the end of the 1850s, which would make them roughly contemporary with Smetana’s Piano Trio in G minor (1855), and Brahms’s First String Sextet (1860). If the opening of Mayer’s Piano Quartet in E flat major, which appeared just a couple of years after the earlier G major Quartet, has a fairly ordinary opening gambit, there are definite clear hints at much better to come, as she works out her thematic material in the ensuing development, in what becomes quite a large-scale ‘Allegro con moto’ that eventually takes up a third of the quartet’s overall playing-time. Like Schumann, in his own Piano Quartet in E flat major, Op 47 (1842), Mayer places the Scherzo second, a somewhat turbulent, strongly-rhythmic affair in the minor key, which is finely contrasted by the essentially melodious Trio, in the major, before the opening material returns to bring the music to an effective, and swift, conclusion. The ‘Un poco Adagio’ is a charmingly heartfelt slow movement, which contrasts calmer sections with more impassioned moments, in a ternary design, where the opening material returns with some subtle variation. There is much interplay between the individual instruments and piano, which ensures that the listener’s attention is held captivated throughout what is, in fact, another quite extended movement of over eight minutes. The finale (Allegro) provides exactly the right relief after the preceding movement, and, in a fast triple-time, somewhat recalls the finale of Schumann’s Piano Concerto (1845). Harmonic progressions are certainly not always predictable, and there is indeed a real sense of fun along the way, especially towards the end, where all instruments simply throw caution to the wind to bring this seemingly brief movement to its exhilarating close.

The slightly earlier Piano Quartet in G major opens with a quite imposing Adagio introduction in the minor key, before breaking into the major for the Allegro. Here the initial section is decidedly light and cheerful, before a somewhat more hymn-like contrasting subject ensues. Throughout, the writing both for strings and piano is highly idiomatic, ensuring that both protagonists get a fairly equal share of the musical argument. The development starts immediately with an upward semitone shift, which is to be readily seen in pieces from Beethoven to Chopin, and beyond. In both quartets, Mayer shows a real grasp of thematic development, which clearly came from her extensive early studies with the likes of Loewe, Marx, and Wieprecht. On this occasion, the second movement (Adagio) is the slow movement, which initially shows a stylistic nod in the direction of Beethoven, but this is soon dispelled by a more disturbed section, with (and a somewhat characteristic fingerprint for Mayer) some dramatic interjections, tremolandos and arpeggios, which then lead back to the peaceful serenity of the start. Mayer’s desire to hold the listener’s attention, by interesting, and, to a degree, often unexpected modulations and shifts from major to minor, also casts the familiar shadow of Schubert over this particular movement.

Mayer places the Scherzo third here, using the same minor key as for the E flat Quartet, and it is another well-written, highly-effective movement, with its demonic humour, all enhanced by the exciting little accelerando just before the end. The closing Allegro leans heavily on scale-writing at the start, where it is little more than an introduction, before the lyrical, song-like themes are rolled out, this time under the watchful eye, perhaps, of Felix Mendelssohn, whose own Piano Quartets predate Mayer’s by some thirty years. Despite the over-arching lyrical nature of this finale, Mayer still makes considerable use of scale passages, which always guarantee sufficient momentum and onward projection. Once again, there is true ingenuity in the development section, never leaving a stone unturned, musically speaking. An overall calmness ensues once more, but it is not long before the scale-passages return, helping to drive the finale on to a satisfying, if somewhat seemingly-abrupt dénouement.

The recording is first-rate, with the piano prominent, but not overly-dominant. This works exceedingly well, given the significant interplay between string and piano, either as an ensemble, or where solo passages or duets are the order of the day.

The Mariani Klavierquartett is a young German ensemble that formed while studying in Berlin. Their playing throughout is absolutely first-class, and not only are they capable of extremes of expression and dynamics, they play with an enviable sense of togetherness, not only from the professional and musical standpoints, but clearly they all get on well, and have a real commitment to the music, which they obviously enjoy playing. There is also an evident sense of immediacy and spontaneity about the recording, which communicates all the elements of a live performance, but within the necessary safer parameters required in any faithful studio recording.

On this showing, and echoing the review of her Piano Trios, I do hope cpo will now delve further into her available output, as some of Emilie Mayer’s orchestral music, especially her Piano Concerto would seem exciting propositions for further new releases from a composer who definitely has a great deal more to offer listeners of today, and certainly not one to be ignored a moment longer than necessary.

Philip R Buttall



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