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Louis (Ludwig) SPOHR (1784-1859)
Chamber Music

CD 1
Quintet, in C minor, for piano, flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon, Op. 52 (1820)
Sextet, in C major, for 2 violins, 2 violas and 2 cellos, Op. 140 (1848)
CD 2
Septet, for flute, clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, cello and piano, Op. 147 (1854)
Quintet, for 2 violins, viola, cello and piano, Op. 130 (1845)
Ensemble Villa Musica
Recorded: March 13-15, 1992 (CD 1); November 1993 (CD 2) at Furstliche Reitbahn Arolsen. DDD
MDG GOLD 304 1263-2 [57:32 + 66:35]

 

German based label MDG Gold have repackaged and released a desirable double CD set of four Louis Spohr chamber works. These were previously available on two separate CDs, recorded in 1992 and 1993 and issued to considerable critical acclaim. In fact, the release of the Piano Quintet Op. 130 and the String Sextet Op. 140 was nominated for a Cannes Classical Award.

North-German born Louis (Ludwig) Spohr won a substantial reputation during the first half of the nineteenth century as a violin virtuoso, conductor, author, teacher and the prolific composer of over one hundred works. Renowned for his principled and dignified personality Spohrís contemporaries were able to see his Ďupright characterí translated into physical terms as he was six foot seven inches tall.

Spohr studied the scores of the great-master composers proclaiming himself a disciple of Mozart; although they have little in common musically. He was well travelled and also had the good fortune to meet numerous fellow composers including, Clementi and Field in St. Petersburg, Meyerbeer in Berlin, Beethoven in Vienna, Viotti and Cherubini in Paris, Weber in Stuttgart and Mendelssohn in Berlin.

The content of Spohrís works made him one of the pioneers of early German Romanticism. However he generally adhered to classical proportions when it came to form. Spohr was also an innovative as his four Ďprogrammeí symphonies The Consecration of Sound, The Historical, The Earthly and Divine in Human Life and The Seasons demonstrate. Spohr was also fond of experimental compositions using often original and novel formats and instrumental combinations in works that included three-single movement integrated Violin concertos (or Concertinos as he called them), a Concerto for string quartet and orchestra, a Symphony for two orchestras, two Double violin concertos and two Double quartets.

Later in the nineteenth century this Classical side of Spohrís compositional personality appeared old-fashioned to those brought up on the heady sounds of Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss et al, which led to his relatively swift demotion from his former high status. At this time Spohrís successful opera Jessonda Op. 63 (1823), feted by Brahms and Richard Strauss, remained popular and was often staged in Germany. The Nazis however eventually banned the work as its libretto was considered inappropriate to their National Socialist ideology. In Great Britain Spohrís oratorio The Last Judgment (1826) remained a favourite of provincial choral societies until the advent of the First World War when a reaction against things German and Victorian prevailed. Spohrís biographer Paul David in an early edition of Groveís Dictionary of Music and Musicians from the early 1900s wrote: "Öthe present lack of interest in Spohrís music is probably only the natural reaction from an unbounded and undiscriminating enthusiasm, which, in England at one time, used to place Spohr on the same level with Handel and Beethoven. These temporary fluctuations will, however, sooner or later subside, and then his true position as a great master, second in rank only to the very great giants of art, will be again established." Unfortunately Paul Davidís confidence of a century ago has not proved accurate. Today, despite frequent and significant pleas for his rehabilitation, Spohrís music remains rarely heard.

It is widely held that Spohrís music has not gained hold in the repertoire owing to a deficiency of emotional depth and his inability to compose memorable themes. Biographer Paul David considers Spohrís music to be powerfully concentrated but displaying the inability to look outside his given circle of ideas and sentiments together with considerable sameness and even monotony.

Only the enjoyable Nonet, in F major, op. 31 for violin, viola, cello, double bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon has remained in the repertoire and to a lesser extent the Octet in E major, op. 32 for violin, 2 violas, cello, double bass, clarinet and 2 horns. These two chamber scores are performed by ensembles wishing to programme items alongside the celebrated Beethoven Septet, in E flat major Op. 20 or the Schubert Octet, in F major D.803; which require comparable instrumentation.

The first work on this double CD set from MDG Gold is the Quintet, in C minor, for piano, flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon, Op.52 which Spohr composed in 1820. Spohrís wife Dorette was an eminent harpist who had previously enjoyed considerable success as a concert pianist. Spohr intended that this four movement quintet might encourage her to return to the piano. During composition of the Quintet for piano and winds there were two renowned models of the form: namely the Quintets both in three movements and in E flat-major from Mozart K.452 and from Beethoven Op. 16. In the score Spohr pays considerable attention to the relationship of the five chamber instruments whilst giving the piano the opportunity for significant display. The Ensemble Villa Musica offer real empathy with this score and provide an alert and sensitive interpretation. The second movement Larghetto which has been rightly described as a Ďmasterpieceí is particularly well played with a sense of restrained intimacy. The performance of pianist Kalle Randalu is of the highest quality and deserves to be singled out for special praise.

Spohr composed his four movement Sextet, in C major, for 2 violins, 2 violas and 2 cellos, Op. 140 in 1848 during time of major political struggle owing to the popular liberal uprisings that had spread through the German States when German people took to the streets to demand freedom and unity. This revolutionary contagion affected Spohr considerably as he was a noted champion of democracy and Republican causes. Boccherini had previously composed a String Sextet some decades earlier which had been largely forgotten. Therefore it was Spohrís String Sextet Op. 140 that was to become the foundation stone for subsequent works in this genre from composers such as Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Glière, Reger et al. Spohrís String Sextet Op.140 is widely regarded as one of the most bountiful and successful compositions of its type and is given a sterling performance by Ensemble Villa Musica. The emotional tension of the first movement Allegro is performed with innate feeling by the players and shows real perception which is a true highlight of the score.

The first work on CD 2 is the Septet, for flute, clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, cello and piano, Op. 147 which was Spohrís final chamber work composed in 1854. In four movements Spohrís final farewell to chamber music contains rich autumnal colours and not surprisingly a predominately elegiac mood pervades the score which the talented performers of the Villa Musica never allow to degenerate into the lachrymose. This is most assured playing and the spirited final movement Allegro is particularly well done with Spohrís near orchestral sound given a forceful and dynamic reading. I must single out the stunning and mellow playing from clarinettist Ulf Rodenhauser in the third movement Scherzo.

The set concludes with the excellent four movement Quintet, for 2 violins, viola, cello and piano, Op. 130 that Spohr completed in 1845. A particularly successful feature of the Piano Quintet is the tendency for the first violin to constantly engage in duets with the piano which is so expertly played by Kalle Randalu. The second movement Scherzo which has been described as, "a masterpiece of instrumental counterpoint, without the effect of brittleness" is given a really thrilling interpretation by Villa Musica that is high on technical proficiency and artistic devotion. The third and penultimate movement Adagio provides a peaceful and dreamy refuge from the demanding surrounding activity and is beautifully played with real intimacy and intensely felt emotion.

MDG Gold are releasing some wonderful recordings and should be given the appropriate accolades. This is an exceptional double CD set of previously released material that will give Spohrís chamber music a significant boost and gain him many new supporters. Superbly performed and recorded this is a release worthy of inclusion in any serious collection.

Michael Cookson



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