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Louis (Ludwig) SPOHR (1784-1859)
Concertante No. 1 in A major, for two violins and orchestra, op.48 (1808)
Grande Polonaise, for violin and orchestra, op 40* (1815)
Concertante No. 2 in B minor, for two violins and orchestra, op.88 (1833)
Potpourri on Irish Songs for violin and orchestra, op59* (1820)
Ulf Hoelscher* (violin)
Gunhild Hoelscher (violin)
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Christian Frohlich
Recorded at Jesus-Christus Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem, April 17-20, 2001, DDD
CPO 999 798-2 [72:29]


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Despite the sterling efforts of many enthusiastic supporters North-German born composer Louis (Ludwig) Spohr remains more of a curiosity than a composer of popular appeal. A slow but sure revival is currently underway mainly thanks to enterprising record companies such as Naxos and its sister company Marco Polo. The smaller more specialist labels such as Claves, Orfeo, MDG and CPO have also played a significant role. In conjunction with the Spohr Society and independent German record label CPO who have produced this disc, soloist Ulf Hoelscher has been recording Spohr's complete works for violin and orchestra as well as the double concertos.. This is a substantial project that to date has occupied him for around ten years

I recently reviewed a recording of a selection of Spohrís chamber music on MDG Gold 304 1263-2 and was delighted with the high quality and wide variety of the music it contained. Incidentally I have recycled biographical details from that review. These may prove useful for those who wish to know more about this enigmatic composer.

Spohr won a most substantial and distinguished 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; he was six foot seven inches tall.

Studying the scores of the great-master composers Spohr proclaimed himself a disciple of Mozart; although ironically they seem to have little in common musically. Spohr was well travelled and also had the good fortune to meet numerous fellow composers by which he must have been influenced. These included Clementi and Field in St. Petersburg; Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn in Berlin; Beethoven in Vienna; Viotti and Cherubini in Paris and Weber in Stuttgart.

His works proclaim him as a very early pioneer of German Romanticism. However he generally adhered to the Classical traditions in a style that I feel was not dissimilar to that of his compatriot Mendelssohn. Spohr was also an innovator 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 often using 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. This led to his relatively swift demotion. At this time Spohrís successful opera Jessonda Op. 63 (1823), feted by Brahms and R. Strauss remained popular and was often staged in Germany. In Great Britain Spohrís oratorio The Last Judgment (1826) proved a favourite of provincial choral societies until the advent of the First World War when a reaction against things German and Victorian prevailed. One could argue that this unpopularity has never been reversed up to the present day.

Spohrís biographer Paul David in an early edition of Groveís Dictionary of Music and Musicians from the early 1900s wrote, "Ö the 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, as today, despite frequent and significant pleas for his restoration to the repertoire, Spohrís music is seldom heard. It is only the enjoyable Nonet, in F major for violin, viola, cello, double bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon, op. 31 and to a lesser extent the Octet in E major for violin, 2 violas, cello, double bass, clarinet and two horns, op. 32 that has remained in the repertoire, performed by ensembles who want to programme items alongside the Beethoven Septet or the Schubert Octet.

I have heard it said that Spohrís music has not gained hold in the repertoire owing to a deficiency of emotional depth especially in the slow movements 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.

Among Spohrís output of seven compositions for solo instruments and orchestra he gave the title Concertante to five of those works. Spohr was to publish only four of these concertantes for solo instruments which included both the Concertante No. 1 in A major for two violins and orchestra op.48 and its counterpart the Concertante No. 2 in B minor, for two violins and orchestra op.88. Perhaps a major factor was the practicality of the publisher experiencing problems in finding two evenly matched virtuoso soloists. There are no such problems here with the brother and sister team of Ulf and Gunhild Hoelscher. They are in complete control throughout.

Spohr composed the Concertante No. 1 in A major, for two violins and orchestra, op.48 in the spring of 1808, during a creative phase where he experimented with original forms and intricate techniques. In three movements the substantial first movement Allegro lasts for over twelve minutes and includes ample opportunities for technical and interpretative display from the soloists. For its trailblazing and special orchestral effects which at the time "caused considerable astonishment" the central Larghetto has been described by music writer Hartmut Becker as, "a musical gem of a special kind." Avoiding the banal, but almost daredevil in character, the jocular final movement Rondo assists the successful reputation of the work. The superb string playing of the soloists is strongly alert and consistently sensitive.

Spohrís Grande Polonaise, for violin and orchestra, op 40 is a single movement Concerto in a genre that has subsequently become known as a Concertino or Konzertstück. The score was composed in the summer of 1815 and followed closely upon the heels of the successful première in Vienna of his Violin Concerto No. 7 in E minor, op.38. Stylistically it heeds similar lines with a clear emphasis on virtuoso solo display without ever degenerating into ostentation. Particularly effective are the appealing violin duets with both the principal flute and clarinet. These are performed with refinement and admirable attention to Spohrís rich and colourful instrumental palate.

The Concertante No. 2 in B minor, for two violins and orchestra, op.88 was composed in the spring of 1833 for a music festival that Spohr was directing and at which he was also a performer. As in the Concertante No.1 op. 48 the two violins dominate the opening movement Allegro and have substantial opportunity for expression and display. The darker and more animated central Andantino movement provides a stark contrast to the outer movements. For its concision, energy and imagination the closing Rondo: Allegretto is a real jewel and one of Spohrís most successful Concertante movements. The talented soloists offer a most persuasive and satisfying interpretation.

Written in 1820 during the first of Spohrís many stays in England the Potpourri on Irish Songs for violin and orchestra, op.59 is considered to be one of the composerís finest and most inspired scores and one that the composer often performed as soloist in concert. Although presented in a continuous single movement Spohr experiments with a three-movement concerto form. The main themes in each of the three parts are a potpourri of traditional Irish folk songs. Ulf Hoelscher is most adept throughout the workís considerable technical and interpretative demands.

There is strong and committed playing throughout from the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under the splendid direction of Christian Frohlich. The CPO engineers have provided a satisfactory sound quality and the annotation from Hartmut Becker is first class.

A refreshing alternative to the usual repertoire. Well performed and recorded!

Michael Cookson


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