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Louis SPOHR (1784–1859)
The Complete String Quintets, Volume 4
String Quintet No. 7 in G minor, Op. 144 (1850) [32:01]a, c
String Sextet in C major, Op. 140 (1848) [23:58]a, c, d
Potpourri No. 2, for String Quintet, in B flat major, Op. 22 (1807) [13:30]a, b
New Haydn Quarteta; Attila Falvay, violinb; Sándor Papp, 2nd violac; Tamás Varga, 2nd cellod
rec. Unitarian Church, Budapest, Hungary, 6-10 September 1996
NAXOS 8.555968 [69.29]


Naxos have repackaged and re-released a desirable CD of chamber works by Louis Spohr. This disc, recorded in Budapest in 1996, was previously available on the premium price Marco Polo label.

The multi-talented 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 Spohr’s contemporaries were able to see his ‘upright character’ 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 Spohr’s works made him one of the pioneers of early German Romanticism. However, he generally adhered to Classical models when it came to form. Spohr was also innovative as his four ‘programme’ symphonies: ‘The Consecration of Sound’, ‘The Historical‘, ‘The Earthy 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. His works include 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 Spohr’s 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 decline from his former high status. Spohr’s opera Jessonda Op. 63 (1823) which was feted by Brahms and Richard Strauss remained popular and was often staged in Germany. The Nazis, however, eventually banned Jessonda as its libretto was considered inappropriate to their National Socialist ideology. In Britain, Spohr’s oratorio The Last Judgment (1826) remained a favourite of provincial choral societies until the outbreak of the Great War when a reaction against things German and Victorian prevailed. Spohr’s biographer Paul David in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians from the early 1900s wrote: “…the present lack of interest in Spohr’s 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 David’s confidence of a century ago has not to date proved accurate. Today, despite frequent and significant pleas for his rehabilitation, Spohr’s music still remains very much in the background.

A widely held view is that Spohr’s music has not gained a secure hold in the repertoire owing to a deficiency of emotional depth and his inability to compose sunny and memorable themes. Biographer Paul David considers Spohr’s music to be powerfully concentrated but displaying an inability to look outside his given circle of ideas and sentiments together with a 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 firmly remained in the chamber 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.

String Quintet No. 7 in G Minor, Op. 144

Spohr composed his String Quintet No. 7 in 1850, during the period of severe unrest and martial law that followed the 1848 Berlin Revolution. Writing to a friend, Spohr was now in total despair stating: “ If I were not too old, I would now emigrate to the free country of America”. It is not surprising that a feeling of melancholy, anxiety and unease permeates much of the Quintet and dominates the first movement. The noble main theme of the second movement larghetto alternates with unsettled sections which return three times to the opening melody, as if homing in on a beacon of light. Brahms is again not far away in the syncopated opening of the third movement menuetto which emphasises once more the basic mood of the work. The barcarolle-style finale, allegro, offers a relaxed resolution to the tensions of earlier events but even here the music gently fades away in contrast to the optimism displayed at the close of the String Sextet. The players of the New Haydn Quartet, augmented by violist Sándor Papp, perform throughout with an impressive security of ensemble. Their pacing has a fine rhythmic impetus and their warmth and finesse is impressive.

String Sextet, in C major, Op. 140

Between the composition of his Sixth String Quintet (Naxos 8.555967) in 1845 and the Seventh String Quintet in 1850, Spohr wrote his String Sextet, in C major, Op. 140 in the Spring of 1848. Spohr was the first composer of note since Boccherini in 1776 to tackle this combination of two violins, two violas and two cellos. Spohr’s composition, widely considered to be one of his finest works, sparked off renewed interest in the medium, leading to the two masterpieces of Brahms with a number of other important composers soon following the example of the two German masters.

Both the String Sextet and the Seventh String Quintet are naturally coloured by Spohr’s reaction to the 1848 revolution. The String Sextet could be said to be Spohr’s euphoric expectation of fulfilled hopes and the Seventh String Quintet from a more depressed period when the forces of repression were regaining the upper hand. The String Sextet is richer in fresh melodies and truly ethereal harmonies than almost any other of Spohr’s works. Hans Glenewinkel, in his important 1912 study of Spohr’s chamber music, remarks that the trilling motif which appears frequently throughout the String Sextet’s first movement is “an expression of joy, sometimes restrained, sometimes bursting impetuously out” while the “elegiac undercurrent” in the coda suggests “a prophetic vision that the spirit of freedom will be fettered again in sleep and dreams before its definitive release”.

The String Sextet’s warm and expansive opening theme, allegro moderato, points ahead to Brahms and this opening movement is unified by the trilling motif which appears again and again with the various themes. The larghetto features a hymn-like solemnity and an effective contrast comes from the secondary material with its rhythmic kick. In the closing third movement the earnest scherzo, moderato alternates with a wonderfully sonorous section marked con grazia. After a pause the joyful finale, presto is launched. The String Sextet is brought to a euphoric conclusion. The players of the augmented New Haydn Quartet provide an enjoyable account of the score, playing with warmth and spontaneity throughout. I found their intonation especially impressive with a pleasing clarity and transparency.

The version of the String Sextet from my collection that I also greatly admire is from the Ensemble Villa Musica, recorded in 1992, on MDG GOLD 304 1263-2. c/w Quintet, Op. 52, Septet, Op. 147 and Quintet, Op. 130.

The Potpourri for String Quintet, Op. 22

The Potpourri, Op. 22 is scored for solo violin and a string quartet and makes an appropriate and attractive work to conclude this Naxos release. The score dates from 1807 when the young Spohr doubled up as a touring violin virtuoso and orchestral director at the princely court of Gotha. For his tours Spohr composed not only violin concertos and shorter pieces with orchestra but also works suitable for salons or smaller centres where orchestras were not available. The work remained a favourite of the composer for many years and he later prepared an orchestral version which he played in London in 1820 and Paris in 1821. Make no mistake this is a substantial score that should be taken seriously and not treated as a mere novelty as the title might suggest.

A slow introduction displays Spohr’s expressive style to the full. A Russian folk-tune is introduced followed by three decorative variations. A modulatory passage leads to the second tune; none other than “Là ci darem la mano from Don Giovanni by Spohr’s great hero Mozart. There are variations on this before the Russian tune returns for the coda. The New Haydn Quartet augmented by the services of violinist Attila Falvay integrate well and compellingly convey their fondness for this highly coloured score. This is a relaxed and agreeably affectionate performance.

I love these well recorded chamber scores and it is great to have them back in the catalogue. Well worth obtaining.

Michael Cookson





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