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Amanda MAIER (1853-1894)
String Quartet in A major (Completed by B Tommy Andersson) [31:55]
Ethel SMYTH (1858-1944)
String Quartet in C minor [34:07]
Maier Quartet
rec. 2019, Grünewaldsalen, Stockholms Konserthus, Stockholm, Sweden

In recent years, both these composers have seen their stars rise slightly; dB Productions already having recorded Amanda Maier’s complete works and a few other companies have celebrated her music with their own recordings. There have also been a number of recordings of Ethel Smyth’s music, including her operas, with Chandos and Retrospect Opera taking the lead. Neither of these string quartets has been recorded before, and the previous recording of the Maier (dBCD188) featured only the central two movements.

It is only right that these two composers be programmed together, as they both studied in Leipzig Conservatory, although they met in the home of Maier’s violin teacher, Engelbert Röntgen, whose son, Julius, she would eventually marry. This was an auspicious meeting for the two composers who became friends and corresponded throughout Amanda Maier’s short life. Each of these two string quartets was composed at about the same period of the respective composer’s life, Maier being 24 and Smyth, Maier’s junior by five years, being 23 when she wrote her quartet.

Maier began composing her string quartet in A in in the autumn of 1877, having returned to Leipzig following her father’s death in Landskrona in Sweden, an event which shook her badly. She was still working on it when on 21st November she met Ethel Smyth for the first time. The quartet languished and it seems was filed uncompleted in 1878, then in the 1990’s the manuscript showing that only the two central movements had been finished, was taken from the Netherlands to a library in Stockholm. It was not until 2018 that B Tommy Andersson took up the task of completing it, working around Maier’s music to finish the first movement, while editing and reconstructing the final movement. It must be said that Andersson’s involvement cannot be understated as, while the previous recording of the central movements is given an equally compelling performance, the work takes on a completely new lease of life when the outer movements are added.

During the time of composition, Maier, the Röntgens and various friends played as a string quartet and often performed Beethoven, especially the Grosse Fuge, and it is Beethoven whose influence can be felt here in this charming and deeply Romantic work. The central movements which survived intact are the slow Andante and the Scherzo, marked Allegro non troppo, which is quite dark, although the Trio section is brighter and more uplifting. However, the quartet was always planned as a four-movement work, so B Tommy Andersson, along with Klas Gagge, the author of the booklet notes and cellist on the recording, have edited and reconstructed Maier’s original sketches, and in the case of the first movement Allegro, Andersson has ‘completed’ it, adding bits to her sketches and giving the short summation of the movement separate index points. The result is a remarkable reconstruction which is faithful to Maier’s scheme for the work and deserving of the highest praise; the resulting music is sympathetic and a good fit to the original. This for me, elevates the original two movement work into a rather good quartet and a fine example of the genre - although the question remains: what would Amanda Maier have thought of it?

Dated 27th April 1881, the String Quartet in C minor was composed shortly before Ethel Smyth’s first visit to the Röntgen household in June, when she met Maier for the first time. It is not to be confused with her Quartet in E minor (999 352-2: TRO-CD01403), which was composed some twenty years or so later, nor was this Smyth’s first quartet; in fact, she composed no fewer than six works in the genre, with her String Quartet No 1 in A minor dating from 1878, and, like Maier’s, was left incomplete with only one movement finished. The C minor Quartet was first performed in in the Röntgen household musical evening on the 28th June and was performed again on the 1st July at Loman’s, a family friend. Although Amanda Maier was not over keen on the work, it was obviously thought worthy of a second performance outside the Röntgens’ home. Smyth returned to England shortly after that performance, soon forgetting about the Quartet and many of her early works; indeed, the performing version used for this recording, based on the autograph score, was made only in 2016.

The work opens with an agitated violin motif, pensive yet fearful, reminding me of Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This soon gives way to Schubertian jollity in the second theme, but the agitation never far away. The opening of the second movement Adagio is quite lovely, tender and with a sense of religiosity which underpins the movement. Again, the influence of Schubert can be felt here, but there is also a hint of Beethoven. The third movement Scherzo. Allegro moderato is in the form of a fugue, its opening theme repeated before tumbling away and receiving a series of slight variations as it goes. The booklet notes discuss her training with Herzogenberg and the way his teaching comes into play here; be that as it may, this is a spritely fugue, which again has a hint of Mendelssohn about it. The final movement Allegro begins with a repeated motif which leads into the first main theme then nicely developed. This gives way to a more dramatic second theme of which Schubert would have been proud; the thematic development leads into strong chord changes and complex recapitulation back to the main theme. This is an interesting early work which, although it might not be as personal as her later Quartet in E minor, is still well worth hearing.

The performances here by the Maier Quartet are excellent, strongly committed and insightful; you get a real sense of their enjoyment. For works which sadly will not draw much attention from the record labels, you want a performance that really grabs your attention and that is exactly what we get, a first-rate performance from a first-rate quartet, all members of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. In the case of the cellist, Klas Gagge, this is a real labour of love, as not only does he play superbly, but he assisted B Tommy Andersson with the realisation of the outer movements of Maier’s Quartet in A, as well as to compose the wonderfully erudite booklet notes which give insight into the friendship between the composers, the world in which they dwelt and their music. This disc is a must for all fans of the music of Amanda Maier and Ethel Smyth and of the nineteenth century string quartet as a whole.

Stuart Sillitoe

The Maier Quartet
Johannes Lörstad (violin I, Maier)
Patrik Swedrup (violin I, Smyth, violin II, Maier)
Henrik Peterson (violin II, Smyth)
Arne Stendlund (viola)
Klas Gagge (cello)

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