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Louis/Ludwig SPOHR (1784-1859)
Nonet in F, Op.31 (1813) [31:39]1
Septet in A minor, Op.147 (1853) [32:55]2
Ensemble 360: Sarah Bitlloch (violin)1,2; Martin Saving (viola)1; Marie Bitlloch (cello)1,2; Laurène Durantel (double bass)1; Guy Eshed (flute)1,2; Adrian Wilson (oboe)1; Matthew Hunt (clarinet)1,2; Benjamin Hudson (bassoon)1,2; Naomi Atherton (French horn)1,2; Tim Horton (piano)2
rec. 14-15 November 20061 and 23-24 November 20062, Potton Hall. Suffolk
ASV GOLD GLD 4026 [65:21]

 


A work of literary history of which I am rather fond is Robert Birley’s Sunk Without Trace: Some Forgotten Masterpieces Reconsidered (1962), in which Birley considers the merits (or otherwise) of some works which were regarded very highly indeed in their day, but which now find almost no readers and have no place in the established literary canon. Works like, for example, Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, published in the 1740s, of which both Goethe and Herder were great admirers and which Boswell (in his Life of Johnson) declared to be “the grandest and richest poetry that human genius has ever produced”.

Spohr offers a not altogether dissimilar case. In his lifetime his reputation stood on a par with that of figures such as Schubert, Weber, Schumann and Berlioz. Not many, I suspect, would put him in quite that company these days. By 1930, Harvey Grace was writing (in Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music) that “very little” of the “great mass” of music written by Spohr was now to be heard, partly, he suggested as “a reaction against the immense vogue of his music during his lifetime and for nearly a generation afterwards”. He expressed the belief, however, that “there are few composers so dead as to be beyond revival, and it is inconceivable that so fecund and skilful a writer as Spohr should not sooner or later enjoy again a measure of popularity”.

Certainly Spohr’s fortunes – at least insofar as recordings go – have improved markedly in recent years. A range of his music is now available and its merits have been advocated quite widely. Yet I’m not that the tag “forgotten masterpieces” quite seems merited, even for two attractive chamber works such as the ones on this present disc. Harvey Grace perhaps put his finger on Spohr’s limitations (though he was specifically writing of Spohr as a composer of string quartets) when, in that same essay, he observed as follows:

“One feels […] that there is a want of another quality that distinguishes the best chamber music – intensity both of mind and emotion. There is abundance of pleasant sound and highly effective writing, but the composer rarely gets below the surface of things. In this connexion his own attitude towards the quartets of Beethoven is highly significant. He was one of the first to acclaim that composer’s early examples, but his admiration stopped short at the op. 18 quartets!”

That “intensity of mind and emotion” is not, I think, to be found here either – though there is, indeed, an “abundance of pleasant sound and highly effective writing”.

Forty years separates the two works persuasively played by Ensemble 360 on this well-recorded disc. The Nonet of 1813 never, I think, entirely disappeared from the concert stage and largely escaped the relative oblivion into which much of its composer’s other work was thrown for some time. It isn’t, as I have implied, a work which digs very deep. It is beautifully scored, for an unusual combination of instruments: violin, viola, cello, double-bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon. The four movements (allegro-scherzo: allegro-adagio-finale:vivace) are nicely distinguished one from another, though the four note motif which opens the work reappears more than once in later movements, so there is unity too. It’s an essentially relaxed piece, which at times has a serenade-like quality. I have heard performances which brought out more real sadness than Ensemble 360 do, but on the whole I prefer their concentration on the elegance and charm of the work, tinged with a slight melancholy in places.

The Septet was written when Spohr was only six months away from his 70th birthday. According to the booklet notes by Keith Warsop (Chairman of the Spohr Society of Great Britain) was composed after Spohr had, in 1853, heard a concert performance in London of the Nonet. It displays, throughout, an astute ear for the blending of instrumental tones (as do these performers). There is more explicit emotional expression in the later work, though the classical models which Spohr so loved still dictate his larger ways of proceeding. The piano is beautifully integrated into the ensemble – otherwise made up of flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin and cello. The second movement, headed ‘Pastorale: Larghetto’, is particularly lovely, Spohr’s lifelong love of Mozart is everywhere evident, though the inherited musical language is extended by a much more chromatic harmonic sense. Though the Nonet is the better known work, I have found this Septet growing on me as I have listened to it.

One needs to approach Spohr, I suspect, with appropriate expectations if one is to enjoy his work, highly competent and fluent as it undoubtedly is. The depth and innerness, the engagement with the very nature of the human condition, that one expects from the greatest composers (i.e. from composers such as those with whom Spohr’s name was linked in his own lifetime) is not, in my experience, to be found in his work. It is salutary to remember that Spohr, in his Autobiography described the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth as “so monstrous and tasteless […] that I cannot understand how a genius like Beethoven could have written it”. That says something about the limitations of Spohr’s own musical world, something we should bear in mind when approaching his work. Do so, thus avoiding inappropriate demands, and there’s much to enjoy. That is certainly the case in these intelligent, well-balanced performances, performances which communicate a real affection for the music and which resist the temptation to over-inflate it.

Glyn Pursglove

 


 


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