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Louis SPOHR (1784-1859)
Complete String Quartets Volume 12
String Quartet No.33 in G, Op.146 (1851) [32:43]
String Quartet No.35 in E-flat, Op.155 (1856) [21:50]
Potpourri No.1 in G on themes from Gaveau’s Le petit matelot, Op.5 (1804) [15:09]
Dima Quartet, Moscow: (Sergey Girschenko, Alexey Gulianitsky (violins); Georgy Kapitonov (viola); Dmitry Yablonsky (cello))
rec. Studio of State Radio House, Moscow, 25 November 2005-9 January 2006. DDD
MARCO POLO 8.225316 [69:41]

Spohr wrote an heroic number of string quartets in the course of his long composing career, so Marco Polo’s complete recordings have had to run to equally epic proportions, now standing at 12 volumes.  At two quartets per volume and with 36 quartets to record, there are still a few volumes to go.  The two works on the present recording are billed as ‘World Première Recordings’.
Earlier volumes, up to and including Nos. 8 (8.223258) and 9 (8.223259) were made with the New Budapest Quartet and Volumes 10 (8.225306) and 11 (8.225307) were recorded with the Concertino String Quartet of Moscow; Volume 12 switches to another Moscow-based group, the Dima Quartet, whom I had not previously encountered, though I had come across Dmitry Yablonsky, the cellist, in his alter ego as a conductor.  Since the booklet and the Naxos webpage describe the members of the quartet individually rather than as a group, I assume that they have only recently come together.
Colin Clarke enjoyed both the music and the performances on Volumes 10 and 11 but Jonathan Woolf was more sceptical about the music and performances on Volume 11: “[Spohr is not] at his most convincing here in performances that don’t do quite enough to assist.”  Other reviewers thought the Moscow performances a degree less recommendable than the earlier Budapest volumes.
Spohr’s earliest quartet was written within a few years of Beethoven’s Op.18 set, but the two works on this recording are late works, inhabiting the world of Mendelssohn rather than that of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.  Some of his chamber music was written for display, as was the case with the Potpourri which ends the CD, a work influenced by the so-called quatuor brilliant.  Though technical excellence was always a means to an end for Spohr, rather than an end in itself, the Potpourri is a largely irrelevant makeweight here after two works where display is kept well in hand.
My first impression was that the recording was a trifle thin, somewhat redolent of a well-remastered 1960s chamber music recording.  Perhaps my ear has become accustomed to the fuller tone which recording engineers like to produce these days for chamber music, which sometimes make the sound a degree too bass-heavy for some systems.  Or maybe the recording is truthful in conveying the leader’s slightly thin tone.
The slight thinness never precludes the cello from receiving its full due.  In any case, by the end of the first movement of No.33 my ears had attuned themselves to the recording and the slightly hesitant playing had become more assured.  This is a serious work, dating from a troubled period in Spohr’s life when relations with his employer were strained, following the composer’s support for the abortive 1848 revolution.  It has an especially fine slow movement, described in the booklet as a passive lament.  The Dima Quartet make a good attempt to match the mood of this movement (track 2) but they failed to persuade me that it had an intensity even approaching that of the slow movement of Schubert’s String Quintet or the ‘lament for Fanny’ of Mendelssohn’s Op.80 Quartet of seven years earlier. 
Here, as throughout the recording, the Dima Quartet seemed still to be exploring the music themselves rather than fully in command of it – after all, these are billed as first recordings.  The recording of No.35 certainly is ground-breaking since the composer imposed an embargo on the performance of his last two quartets.  Breaking this 150-year-old prohibition has not produced music of the quality of the realisation of Elgar’s Third Symphony or even Grieg’s youthful Symphony, but the performance largely justifies the verdict of the scholar Hans Glenewinkel in 1912, that the work “possesses so many merits in its transparency and more natural language” as to be worth performing.  Here again the performance struck me as slightly tentative and marginally lacking in intensity, but perhaps that is because the players are trying to bring out the transparency and naturalness to which Glenewinkel refers.  Perhaps also they have in mind Spohr’s own stated wish to return to the classical ideals of Haydn and Mozart. 
Certainly they produce some very beautiful playing, as in the second, andantino movement (track 6), a performance which goes some way to persuading me that this movement is at least the equal of that of No.33.  Spohr’s marking Romanze: andantino indicates a lighter touch than the Adagio molto of No.33 and, paradoxically, by trying less hard, he produces almost the same intensity in a manner which the players are able to evoke.
In the Menuetto: moderato (track 7) and Finale : Allegro non troppo (track 8), too, they capture the mood of the music very well.  Those familiar with Spohr’s early works such as the Nonet and Octet will find a similar tunefulness here in this work of his old age.  The same is true of the Potpourri but, then, that is even earlier than the Nonet.  It’s in some ways similar to the Triebensee wind-band version of numbers from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a version of which I have just reviewed for Musicweb.  Part of the fun of the Triebensee is recognising the tunes from the opera.  Modern listeners are unlikely, however, to be familiar with Gaveau’s Le petit matelot ou le mariage impromptu (1796) on which the Spohr Potpourri is based.  It’s a pleasant enough work, well played here, but it seems out of place – more a pot-boiler than a potpourri – after the more intense style of the late quartets, No.33 especially.  When will the record companies start to put the minor work(s) first?
The booklet contains detailed notes, written by Professor Clive Brown, an acknowledged authority on Spohr, and Keith Warsop, Chairman of the Spohr Society of Great Britain.  The cover is decorated with another of that seemingly endless supply of 18th and 19th century paintings with which Naxos and Marco Polo make their covers so much more stylish than most.
The virtues of these performances and the recording outweigh any shortcomings, but I wouldn’t advise beginners to start to explore Spohr’s chamber music with this CD.  It’s not just for completists – it amounts to much more than that – but the Nonet and Octet are the place to begin.  If this CD had been issued at Naxos price it would have been easier to recommend it. 
As it is, Marco Polo’s own recordings of Spohr’s String Quintets with the augmented New Haydn Quartet, now reissued on Naxos, make a better, and less expensive, follow-up to the Nonet and Octet.  Jonathan Woolf has reviewed Nos. 1 and 2 (8.555965) and 3 and 4 (8.555966) and Robert Hugill Nos. 5 and 6 (8.555967).  For the Nonet, see Glyn Pursglove’s recent review of the recording on ASV GLD4026.  The classic Vienna Octet coupling of the Spohr and Schubert Octets on 466 580-2 is still my version of choice – reviewed and recommended by Harry Downey.  Even the one adverse review of this version of the Schubert which I have seen recommends the Vienna Octet version of the Spohr.  There are also good versions of the Double Quartets, played by the ASMF Chamber Ensemble on a Hyperion Dyad twofer, CDD22014.
Brian Wilson


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