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Louis SPOHR (1784-1859)
Grand Concert Overture in F major, WoO 1 (1819) [6:31]
Symphony No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 20 (1811) [36:36]
Symphony No. 2 in D minor, Op. 49 (1820) [30:48]
Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana/Howard Shelley
rec. Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland, September 2006
HYPERION CDA67616 [74:04]
Experience Classicsonline

To many listeners, Spohr's name is more familiar than his music: musicologists acknowledge him as a prominent lesser contemporary of Beethoven, while a passing mention in The Mikado brings him regularly to the attention of Savoyards. More recently, his scores have received sporadic bouts of recorded attention. His clarinet concertos show off the solo instrument effectively, but the themes are resolutely unmemorable; record producers who pair a Spohr concerto with the Mozart A major are asking for trouble. His chamber music is genuinely appealing and well-wrought, but the composer's predilection for larger instrumental groupings - septets, octets, nonets - suggests ambitions beyond the scope, or expectations, of the chamber form.
 
The two symphonies in the present program - I don't know whether this is a one-off, or the beginning of a planned cycle - prove listenable and engaging. Spohr's craftsmanship is mostly impeccable: his structures, with a single glaring exception, are clear and compact; his logical development sections hold the listener's interest. His most obvious shortcoming is a tendency to festoon recapitulations with little scales and other figurations, perhaps in an effort to vary them. If Beethoven's shadow occasionally falls over the music, this is hardly bad, and was probably to be expected at the time - it was only the twentieth century, after all, that would make a sort of fetish of unmoored, unadulterated originality.
 
The majestic tutti chords that launch the E-flat symphony yield to quieter textures decorated by woodwind and bass scales, in a slow introduction that suggests the spirit, if not the sound, of Haydn. The Allegro proper arrives with a pleasant lyrical theme; surprisingly, it's the second theme, also lyrical, that has the sharper contours, with crisp dotted rhythms. The expression, particularly in the softer passages, may bring Schumann to mind, although that composer, of course, hadn't yet begun composing.
 
A dignified cello theme over steady "walking" pizzicati begins the Larghetto con moto, which maintains a Classical restraint even when more turbulent material arrives over pulsing triplets. The Scherzo, again, is rather lyrical, punctuated with sharp tutti outbursts; there's a nice moment towards the end where Spohr reinforces the cadences by shifting briefly from triple to duple scansion. Here, it's the Trio's unequivocal shift into the minor that provides the needed contrast. The Finale's attractive opening subject occasionally achieves real delicacy, while its second group draws more character from its little scalar "tails" than from the theme itself.
 
The second symphony makes less strong an immediate impression. In the first movement, the casting of busy, agitated material in D minor markedly anticipates Schumann's dramatic symphony in that key. Unfortunately, Spohr makes a rare structural miscalculation, capping a concise sonata form with a coda that goes on too long and runs out of steam. The Larghetto is based on a sweet if square chorale, with ominous trumpets and pounding tympani briefly disturbing the mood. Things pick up with the Scherzo, which blends forward impulse -- the marking is Presto -- with firm rhythmic grounding, while the legato Trio, with its broader rhythmic spring, opens into triumphant climaxes. The unclouded Finale is chipper and infectious.
 
The Grand Concert Overture isn't much of an asset. Its sense of scale is off, with the heavy, portentous gestures at the start suggesting both a longer introduction and a bigger piece than we actually get. The principal theme, with its prevalent short articulations, comes off as rather "cutesy," though its further elaboration is dead serious. The second theme offers minimal contrast to the first, being built from similarly brief motifs, but it's a bit more shapely in, again, a distinctly Schumannesque vein. There's a nice moment at the start of the development where the woodwinds carry the music to a distant key, and the climax at 5:40 is surprisingly exuberant coming from such short-winded material.
 
Howard Shelley draws impressive sounds from the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, keeping the basses light and springy, drawing solid, compact chording in tutti. The violins don't have much time or tone to spare in some of the faster writing - especially in the D minor symphony - but the playing is clean and unified. Shelley also understands this elusive early-Romantic style, and leads sympathetic performances; in the E-flat symphony, the rhythmic scansion of the first movement's main theme isn't immediately clear, but that may well be the composer's fault.
 
Hyperion's favored ambience produces a braver resonance than I would prefer. In this instance, however, it doesn't obscure important detail, perhaps because Spohr's textures aren't all that busy to begin with, so there's not much important detail to lose. The program is sensibly arranged with the overture preceding the two symphonies.
 
Stephen Francis Vasta

see also review by Rob Barnett

 

 


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