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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Louis SPOHR (1784 – 1859)
String Quintet No. 5 in G Minor
String Quintet No. 6 in E Minor
Hadyn Quartet, Budapest
Sando Papp (Viola)
Recorded: Unitarian Church, Budapest, 6th-10th September 1993
NAXOS 8.555967 [60.45]


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Louis Spohr’s career as a composer encompassed Beethoven’s Opus 18 string quartets and Wagner’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’. He spent a large part of his working life as the Kapelmeister in Kassel and was an important influence in early German Romanticism, writing 9 symphonies, 15 violin concertos and a number of operas including ‘Jessonda’ (perhaps his best known) and ‘Faust’. As a conductor he was one of the first people to make use of a baton, a fact which alarmed London orchestras when he first conducted them. A virtuoso violinist, Spohr wrote chamber music all his life. The two recorded here were originally part of a Marco Polo series of Spohr’s quintets and quartets.

String Quartet No. 5 was written in August and September 1838 which was a truly eventful period in the composer’s life. He had lost his adored first wife, Dorette, in 1834. She had shared his early successes and the two of them had been a notable harp and violin duo (Spohr wrote a number of duos for them to play and these have also been released on Naxos). He married again in 1836 and his new wife, Mariette, was an accomplished pianist. Encouraged by her, he wrote a number of chamber pieces with piano parts so that this string quintet is the only work for strings alone that Spohr wrote in the first 9 years of his new marriage (previously he had regularly produced sets of chamber music for strings). June 1838 also saw the tragic death at the age of 19 of Spohr’s youngest daughter, Therese, who was reputed to be an exact likeness of her late mother. It was during the recuperation from this event that Spohr and Mariette met Schumann for the first time. Spohr and Schumann possessed a not uncritical admiration for each other.

It was from these momentous events the Quintet no. 5 in G minor arose. The work has a spaciousness of design and richness of texture which is lacking in the two previous, more intimate quintets. The long first movement starts with a powerful unison figure answered by quiet descending phrases. This opening figure appears in many guises during the movement. Though there are lighter moments, the movement is predominantly dark and sombre with a powerfully anguished outburst in the development. The Haydn Quartet attacks this movement with soberness and seriousness which entirely suits the music. The two viola players contribute a welcome depth and richness to the sound. The following Larghetto, in the warm key of E flat, is more peaceful. But the rich harmonies are still occasionally disturbed but darker undercurrents in the cello. The vigorous Scherzo returns to the home key of G minor, but this is a restless movement with frequent changes of key and time signature. Interestingly the Scherzo and the Trio are repeated, but in the coda the first violin and cello play harmonics which anticipate one of the key features of Finale. This is a pastoral movement, with a bagpipe like melody given extra spice by the harmonics. There is no development section and this light, carefree movement ends quietly, as if the stresses and strains of the earlier movements have been resolved.

The Quintet No. 6 in E minor was composed in February and March 1845. This was one of a number of concertos and chamber pieces that he wrote following his last opera ‘Die Kreuzfahrer’. The only significant chamber works to appear after Quintet No. 5 were piano trios in which Spohr made a considerable impact with his innovative writing for the medium. The opening Allegro displays a melancholy lyricism which is typical of earlier Spohr quartets. The movement is rich in texture but the melodic interest is less flowing than some of Spohr’s earlier works. But this is a problem that I find with these works generally. They are beautifully and effectively written for the medium, but lack the melodic interest and spark that is true of Mozart’s works in the genre. The second movement is a lively Scherzo in A minor, a movement that displays a certain grim humour which is set off by the gracious Trio. The long, reflective theme of the Adagio in C is typical of the composer but some contrast is provided by more pointed rhythms. The finale is a fast and furious piece that returns to the home key and the agitated mood carries right through to the end.

The pieces receive fine performances from the Haydn Quartet with Sandor Papp on 2nd viola. The Quartet bring a warm tone to the rich textures of these pieces. The quartet attack the pieces with a sober earnestness relieved by occasional lightness. For those collecting the Naxos Spohr chamber music series, I can have no hesitation at recommending them. For those new to Spohr, this CD provides a welcome opportunity to hear a less frequently heard voice of German Romanticism.

Robert Hugill

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