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Louis SPOHR (1784-1859)
Double String Quartet No. 1 in D minor, Op. 65 (1823) [24:00]
Double String Quartet No. 2 in E flat, Op. 77 (1827) [27:22]
Forde Ensemble
rec. 15-16 January 2008, St Mark’s Church, Purley, Surrey, UK
NAXOS DIGITAL 8.570963 [51:22]
Experience Classicsonline

Suppose two string quartets are appearing together at your local chamber music hall to perform as one ensemble. What work do you suppose they will be playing? And, for that matter, what work are you hoping they will play? The prime suspect is certain to be the Mendelssohn Octet - I know that would be my expectation. Felix Mendelssohn’s teenage triumph stands at the top of the list of music written for eight string players, though Enescu and Bruch would later add octets of their own - the Bruch with a double-bass rather than a second cello. Shostakovich composed two fragments for that instrumentation, and the Beatles deployed two string quartets for their song “Eleanor Rigby.” What a pleasant surprise, then, to find this new album of music by Louis Spohr, a chamber music master active during the lifetime of Mendelssohn, dedicated to Spohr’s “Double String Quartets.” The first two of his four such double quartets appear on this CD, and, although they are not going to challenge Mendelssohn for supremacy in anybody’s view, they are each delights in and of themselves.

It should be noted at the outset that the different name Spohr chose highlights a key difference between his work and that of his more famous contemporary. Spohr himself had to explain, “Mendelssohn’s Octet belongs to quite another kind of art,” writing (in remarks reproduced in the liner notes) that while Mendelssohn asked the eight players to perform as one group, he preferred to have them work as two distinct, facing quartets “in double choir with each other.” The first of Spohr’s double quartets predates Mendelssohn’s Octet by two years, and the Octet in turn predates the Second Double Quartet by two years. There is no evidence that Spohr had heard the younger man’s masterwork while he was writing the second piece, though he clearly had by the time he wrote the fourth and final double quartet twenty years later.

We are told in the liner notes that Spohr’s First Double Quartet was written for an ensemble mainly comprised of the composer’s students and wealthy patrons; unfortunately, then, the only performer Spohr could count on to live up to his high standards was himself - the composer, as a virtuoso violinist, naturally took the first chair. Throughout the sequence of four double quartets, the liner notes explain, Spohr’s students improved and he was able to find more talent to fill out the rest of the group, so while it makes chronological sense to start with the First and Second Double Quartets on this volume, I am left with a definite suspicion that the second album will harbor more interesting, and much more technically challenging, music.

That said, if you are curious to sample Louis Spohr’s chamber music or if you just want to hear what these Double Quartets might sound like, do not wait. This first volume is quite wonderful indeed. The Second Double Quartet, in particular, is a gem - a laid-back, gentle piece of very good humour. It is not particularly innovative - the dance movement, placed second, is a genteel minuet in the traditional style - but the musical language is a winning combination of good cheer and graceful echoes of the dance. The third movement, “Larghetto,” seems at times like a slowed-down minuet itself, with its elegant stop-start musical steps (one might also think of the opening seconds of Mozart’s “Linz” Symphony). The finale too features some infectious rhythms, which propel the music forward even when the melodic material is not at its most compelling. The first movement, and by far the longest, is probably also the best - it floats along like a dream.

The First Double Quartet is perhaps less notable, because it seems to occupy the key of D minor only to add some artificial drama of the sturm und drang variety. I do not feel any particularly distinct voice in the first movement which could be said to Spohr’s. Fortunately the scherzo has a bit more humour in its countenance, and the finale is also a well-crafted confection. The feeling I get is that Louis Spohr was a naturally sunny fellow who felt a little at sea writing in the minor mode, but who in his element could spin some very charming tunes. One can tell that this work was written for students: the parts for lower strings, especially violas, are never very taxing - or interesting, either, although Spohr is more willing to give the cellos good tunes than some of his contemporaries.

The Forde Ensemble, based in Forde Abbey, Dorset, is an off-and-on performing group which was founded by a record producer with players from the ranks of the major London orchestras; it appears at summer concerts in the Abbey. I am happy to report that the group is excellent, the players are well-matched, and the ensemble’s sound is a pleasure for the ears.

There is only one rival recording of the complete Spohr Double Quartets, on a Hyperion two-CD set with players from the Academy of St.-Martin-in-the-Fields. I have not heard the Hyperion discs, but they would have to be very good indeed to justify the considerable difference in price. Prospective buyers should note, of course, that the Naxos set is only half-complete, and that it is only available as a download from Classicsonline. The Naxos album comes with helpful digital liner notes (which of course can be printed), and the sonics excellently capture Louis Spohr’s intended set-up of two string quartets facing one another, the first in the left channel and second in the right.

I would venture to guess that the later two Double Quartets would make a better introduction to Spohr’s music in the medium, but if you cannot wait, invest with confidence. These are not quite the Mendelssohn Octet, but Spohr’s chamber music is always enjoyable and often superb; the Second Double Quartet would be a great backdrop for a sunny morning. A wonderful bargain and a good advertisement for the music of Louis Spohr. His fans already know that he wrote a huge quantity of vastly underrated chamber music; newcomers can now very cheaply let themselves in on the secret.

Brian Reinhart


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