> Louis Spohr - Complete String Quintets Vol. 1 [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Jun2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Louis SPOHR (1784-1859)
Complete String Quintets Volume 1

Quintets Op 33 Nos 1 and 2
Danubius Quartet with Sandor Papp, Second Viola
Recorded February and March 1993 at the Unitarian Church, Budapest
NAXOS 8.555965 [68’06]


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Spohr’s first two Quintets were written whilst he was orchestral director at the Theater an der Wien from 1813-15. Their genesis was superbly pragmatic. Johann Tost, formerly a violinist, for whom Haydn had written his Quartets Opp 54, 55 and 64 and Mozart his K593 and K614, had now retired and set up as a businessman. He asked Spohr to compose chamber music, thirty ducats for a quartet, thirty-five for a quintet, with Tost to retain the manuscript and to be performed only with Tost in attendance. After three years the manuscript would be returned to Spohr who was then free to get it published. This clandestine, labyrinthine arrangement was devised solely in order for the wily Tost to attend important salons where the works were performed and he could drum up trade for his cloth business.

The Op 33 Quintets were printed in the wrong order and No 2 was actually written first shortly after Spohr had finished his ever-delightful Nonet and it is a work of signal accomplishment. Clearly it is Mozartian in impulse, with four-movements lasting fully thirty-seven minutes. The first violin part is reminiscent of the quatuor brillant works of which Spohr was an adept exponent and is virtuosic to a considerable degree. The opening Allegro is a fourteen-minute movement of sophisticated developmental potential and yet it would be hard, for all its virility and incident, not to sympathise with the admittedly biased contemporary reviewer, Ignaz Franz von Mosel (one of whose literary efforts had earlier aroused Spohr’s contempt) when he wrote of its "eternal re-chewing of the theme in every voice and key." Biased he may have been but he had a point. The Scherzo features some witty first violin passages over accompanying strings – these are very much first violin dominated quintets – and there is in Spohr, as so often, a coalescence of resoluteness and humour, of a determined wit. The third movement variations are clearly delineated with strong entry points for the individual strings – especially the sympathetic cello writing. The finale opens with alternating gentle and stern melodies – and then immediately a rather stately theme enters, a quietly humorous one with harmonic variety and some charming and highly individual stylistic features – blowsy folk bands seem to have been en vogue at the time – leading to a marvellously comprehensive conclusion to a multi-faceted work; not deep but full of passing interest.

The E flat major Quintet never really attains this level of achievement. In the Allegro there is some elegant high-lying first violin writing over solidly underpinning support. The slow movement makes a show of seriousness but soon gives way to good spirits whereas the Minuet again features some virtuoso writing reminiscent of Spohr’s contemporaneous Violin Concertos. The finale, an Allegretto, acknowledges Spohr’s contemporary leanings as well as his historical affiliations. There is a rather beautiful slow passage at 5’30 that reveals his ability to surprise and distil a quixotic romantic sensibility into his scores – and also some effortless violin virtuosity, before a benign and quiescent ending.

The Danubius Quartet with second viola Sandor Papp are more than worthy exponents of Spohr’s Quintets. There can be some muddiness in the inner voices but that’s as much Spohr’s responsibility as that of the musicians. In its aversion to easy effects or to the innovative Spohr might be seen as a retrogressive composer but, as the Op 33 No 2 Quintet shows, there is plenty of room for a craftsman of lyric abundance in the chamber literature.

Jonathan Woolf


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