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Louis SPOHR (1784-1859)
Complete String Quintets, Volume 4.

Quintet No. 7 in G minor, Op. 144a,c (1850) [32:01]
Sextet in C major, Op.140a,c,d (1848) [23:57]
Potpourri, Op. 22 (1807)a,b [13:30]
a New Haydn Quartet: János Horváth (violin I), Péter Sárosi (violin II), György Porzsolt (viola), Gábor Magyar (cello); b Attila Falvay (violin); c Sándor Papp (2nd viola); d Tamás Varga (2nd cello)
rec. 4-7 March 1996, Unitarian Church, Budapest.
from Marco Polo 8.223600
NAXOS 8.555968 [69:29]

In my 1930 edition of Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music the entry on Spohr contains the following intriguing paragraph:-

That Spohr had admirers in England in his day is proved by the reception given to his chamber works at a festival given in his honour by the Queen’s Square Select Society. Three double quartets, two quintets, an octet, and a nonet were included in the generously ample programme, and the company listened from 2 till 7 without the least sing of weariness. There were heroes in those days – among audiences.

Spohr wrote a good deal of chamber music – enough to fuel quite a lot of five hour long concerts. I haven’t heard more than a small proportion of this music. I can, though, report that listening to it demands no heroism. However, I have generally found that it does require a certain patience. Spohr is not, on the whole, a composer whose most obvious virtues include concision. Nor – and given that he was so prolific, this is not surprising – is he always able to maintain a consistent level of invention throughout his often quite lengthy compositions. In listening to Spohr my experience has generally been that – almost infallibly – there is plenty to enjoy in every work; but – almost as infallibly – there are also things about which one has reservations, or which are simply not very gripping.

The highlight here is provided by the Sextet. Its opening allegro moderato is well-integrated, motifs seeming to generate their successors and the whole communicating a sense of joy in its richly harmonised lines. In a catalogue of his compositions which he compiled, Spohr is said to have noted alongside the Sextet, "written in March and April, at the time of the glorious people’s revolution for the liberty, unity and greatness of Germany". In the larghetto there is much that is solemn, a sense of deeper reflection, and in the last movement the repetition of material from the opening allegro is part of the music’s trajectory towards a final joyful affirmation. This is one of the finest of the chamber works by Spohr which I have heard; but even here I am not sure that the third movement is quite on the same level, in tightness of structure and invention, as the first two.

The Seventh Quintet, it is suggested in the helpful booklet notes by Keith Warsop - a latter-day British admirer of Spohr, Chairman of the Spohr society of Great Britain - reflects Spohr’s disappointment with the outcome of the revolution of 1848, as more reactionary forces reasserted themselves and idealistic hopes began to fade. Certainly there is a troubled feeling to much of the writing here, a sadness which never really lifts.

The lighter side of Spohr is on display in the much earlier Potpourri. Here a solo violin and string quartet begins with the statement of a Russian folk tune and three variations on it before – a delightful surprise – it is succeeded by ‘Là ci darem la mano’ from Don Giovanni. Spohr gives us some attractive variations on this before a coda which returns us to the first tune. A slight, but warm and delightful piece.

Throughout, the New Haydn Quartet and their various supplementary forces play with conviction and warmth. While it would be wrong to suggest that is great music or essential listening, Spohr is a figure of some importance in the evolution of nineteenth-century music. I, at least, am grateful to Naxos for giving us the chance to hear some of his most important chamber music (notably the sextet). I remain, however, untempted by any desire to listen to Spohr for five hours at a time.


Glyn Pursglove

see also review by Michael Cookson



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