|Founder: Len Mullenger|
| Louis SPOHR
Sonatas for flute & harp
Sonata in B-flat, Op. 16
Sonata in E-flat, Op. 113
Sonata in E-flat, Op. 114
Sonata in C minor
Maxence Larrieu, flute
Susanna Mildonian, harp
Recorded in Studio "Right Place", Brussels, November 1998
PAVANE RECORDS ADW 7423 [73.57]
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Louis Spohr was perhaps one of the most important composers in 19th century Germany. Although best known as a composer of music for violin (an instrument with which he gained much recognition as a virtuoso) he wrote a considerable amount in other genres; apart from a vast body of music for chamber ensembles Spohr left thirteen operas, nine symphonies and fifteen violin concertos. One of the pioneers of German romanticism, he developed a distinctive melodic and harmonic idiom early in his career, composing music that was highly expressive and showed a combination of German and French influences. While some have said that his advanced use of chromaticism anticipates Wagner this is more likely a result of the influence of Mozartís late works and of Cherubini, while his rhapsodic melody writing is always confined within traditional classical forms. Later in his career, Sphorís inability to develop his style further attracted charges of repetition and within years his music was performed less frequently.
Recent times have, however, seen something of a Spohr revival, on disc at least. Many of his chamber and orchestral works have been recorded and even some of the operas have appeared. This disc gathers together four Sonatas for Violin and Harp, spanning the extremes of his career, heard here in performances on flute rather than violin.
The early Op.16 sonata is perhaps not the best introduction to Spohrís oeuvre and the performance presented on this disc does it no favours. Opening with a chromatic unison idea, the first movement presents some typically melodious writing but, particularly in the development section, there is much repetition and imitation between instruments. While the melody writing occasionally soars in rhapsodic fashion and there are some lovely, Schubertian modulations, Spohr fails to maintain a sense of forward momentum and his ideas appear to go nowhere. Larrieu and Mildonian fail to counter this with playing that is sufficiently characterful. While Larrieu provides some fine dynamic contrasts, they tend to be between quiet and quieter. Even when the melody line soars, Larrieu maintains a small tone when a bigger sound is clearly required. When the harp overpowers the flute, as it does on occasion, it becomes obvious that Larrieuís refusal to sing out is detrimental to the music. Nor does his heavy, almost rhythmic vibrato help matters. The central adagio is not helped by the fact that occasionally the writing for violin does not transfer well to the flute, plainly too low, and as a result this prevents Larrieu projecting sufficiently and inhibits truly expressive playing. The finale, a rondo, ends the performance in a thoroughly uninspired fashion. The opening passage for harp on its own makes clear the fact that the recording (made in Brussels, November 1998) is simply too resonant. Furthermore one suspects that the clearer, brighter tone of the violin may result in added sparkle; but the plodding nature of this performance is due in no small part to the refusal of these artists to play out in expressive moments, to engage with the music on any level.
After the singly unimaginative nature of the performance that opens this disc, matters improve drastically for the remaining works. The E-flat Sonata Op. 113 is not only a more consistently inspired piece of music but sees this duo delivering a far more extrovert performance. The first movement opens once more with a unison idea (reminiscent of Mozartís D major piano sonata K.284) but Spohr then proceeds to compose music that is more imaginative and assured than the earlier piece. Interestingly, the writing here seems more naturally suited to the flute. Whilst complete originality still eludes Spohr (the second subject of this movement recalls Schubertís A major piano sonata A.664), the second movement in particular includes much that is interesting. Here, although Mozart is clearly the model, there is an unexpected poignancy deriving from Spohrís harmonic inventiveness that reminds one of the influence of French composers. His use of harp is also quite unusual, creating interesting timbres by simultaneously exploiting both extremes of register. Mildonian almost makes the listener forget that they are listening to a harp, such is her subtlety of dynamics and imaginative shading. Unfortunately, Spohr spoils things somewhat by drawing the music to a disappointingly perfunctory close. No such disappointment greets the final movement which is given an engagingly lilting performance, Larrieuís treatment of the opening ideaís grace notes particularly enjoyable. Mildonian also seems to be far more at home with the fuller texture of Spohrís harp writing in this work, which has the added benefit of giving Larrieu a bigger sound over which to project.
The following work provides perhaps the finest performance on this disc. The first movement is as we have come to expect from the previous works; a unison opening followed by much pleasing melody. There are echoes of the first movement of the Op. 16 sonata here, an indication that the criticsí charges of repetition later in Spohrís career probably had some grounding in truth. However, the main attraction of this work must be its second movement, a sequence of variations on tunes from Mozartís The Magic Flute. Spohr describes this movement as ĎAndante con variazionií, but a more helpful title would probably be Ďfantasyí. The interesting point here is that, even when using someone elseís tunes, Spohr still had difficulty integrating them into a seamless flow, the result being occasionally disjointed. Of course, one could argue that Mozartís music works better in context than out of it. Nevertheless, Larrieu and Mildonianís performance provides much entertainment, Larrieu particularly relishing the more virtuosic writing towards the end of the work. It should be noted that in this movement Spohr occasionally moves into some very forward looking harmonic territory, sometimes for no more than a moment but often enough to make the listener sit up.
The final work on the disc, a sonata in C minor is, presumably, posthumous. The booklet notes are singularly unhelpful here. The work is not given an opus number but appears last, leading one to assume that it is a late work (given the chronological presentation of the earlier works) rather than a very early one. None of the pieces on this disc are discussed at any length in the booklet; and while it is nice to know that Spohrís inspiration for writing for harp was his wife, the harpist Dorette Scheider (1784-1834), the rather more detailed discussion of the timbral possibilities of combining harp and violin seems perverse given the present recording. Recording quality is satisfactory, slightly too resonant for this music and certainly too backwardly balanced especially regarding the flute. Fans of Spohr will no doubt want to buy this disc. As recording comparisons are here redundant (as far as I can tell these works have not previously been recorded, and certainly not with flute), a general recommendation will depend on taste. The music on this disc is never less than pleasant and the performances eminently serviceable when not rather enjoyable; yet it is certainly a disc to relax rather than excite.
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