Classical Music Review: New Releases

Quartets by Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, Emilie Mayer, and M. Laura Lombardini Sirmen.   Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel: String Quartet in E flat major; Emilie Mayer: String Quartet op. 14 in G minor; M. Laura Lombardini Sirmen: Quartetto No. 2 in B flat major, Quartetto No. 3 in G minor.  Erato Quartett Basel (Emilie Haudenschild, violin; Attila Adamka, violin; Heinz Haudenschild, viola; Emeric Kostyak, cello).  cpo 999 679-2 (72'23)

My copy of the Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers is comfortingly thick, over 500 pages; however, I probably own fewer than 25 classical CDs of music by women.  Some labels -- CRI, for example -- release a substantial number of disks featuring women composers, but even today women are much more likely to be seen performing classical music than composing it.  Women are to be heard but not heard from.

No matter how much the situation appears to be changing at present  -- and it is changing, consider the success in America of Joan Tower, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Shalamit Ran and others (there are, of course, similar changes going on throughout the world) -- past iniquities cannot be altered, and it must be accounted something more than a shame that for centuries over half of our number have been silenced, often for no better reason than something as ludicrous as bourgeois propriety.

This collection of string quartets by 19th century women demonstrates that the silence was not complete.  Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805-1847) wrote over 400 works, mainly songs and short works for piano.  Her brother Felix seems to have encouraged her writing but discouraged its publication.  She wrote mainly for her Berlin salon, the salon being one of the few socially acceptable outlets for female creativity in the 19th century.  Her String Quartet in E flat major (1834) is a somewhat unconventional work.  The opening movement eschews sonata form.  Instead two main themes are developed in a fantasia in which nonthematic material is interwoven with the two themes.  It is a movement of great forward drive, and that drive is continued in the second movement scherzo inspired by Paganini's Bell Rondo from his Violin Concerto No. 2, which Mendelssohn-Hensel heard in 1829.  The third movement is perhaps the most remarkable, dominated by repeated tones and falling motifs.  The feeling of resignation is palpable.  The quartet concludes with an energetic finale, which regains the drive of the opening movements.  With its inventiveness and lyrical grace, Hensel's quartet is the equal of any of her brother's, which is to say that it stands with the best of its time.

Emilie Mayer (1812-1883) is a less familiar name than the other two composers on this disk.  She studied with Carl Loewe and Adolf Bernhard Marx and is called "the most prolific German woman composer of the Romantic period" by the Norton/Grove Dictionary.  She published a great deal of music and had numerous performances throughout the continental Europe during her lifetime; however, she is virtually unknown today (there is a 1990 recording of one of her cello sonatas).  Her String Quartet in G minor, Op. 14 (c. 1864) is a less adventurous work than Hensel's, which may reflect the difference between a working composer and a dilettante.  The first movement is a solid piece of work in sonata form, with a graceful first theme and a prominent part for the cello.  Textures are occasionally dense but never overloaded.  A light, graceful scherzo is followed by a slow movement based on a German hymn and featuring passages of quiet, unfolding beauty.  The finale is an energetic summing up, with contrasting themes and stormy energy.  Incidentally, Mayer was also a respected sculptor whose works were catalogued in several royal collections.

Maddalena Laura Lombardini Sirmen (1745-1818), born in Venice, was a musical polymath renowned in her day for her singing, violin playing, and compositions.  As befits a touring virtuosa, her most popular compositions were her concerti but she also published trios, sonatas, and, in Paris in 1769, a set of six string quartets.  Dating from about the same time as Haydn's Op. 9, Sirmen's quartets betray the divertimento origins of the genre.  Peter Carter, first violinist of the Allegri Quartet (who premiered the complete collection on Cala [CD 1019] in 1994, finds the works "at least as appealing as the early Haydn's."  They are all two-movement works, with an opening allegro in a rudimentary sonata form and a slower second movement.  The two played here a pleasant, graceful works less showy and more ensemble oriented than one would expect.

Irrespective of its historical and political significance, this is a lovely collection of music.  The Erato Quartett play with style and commendable balance.  The recorded tone is warm and spacious.

Tony Gualtieri
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