Louis SPOHR (1784-1859)
The Fall of Babylon Overture, WoO63 (1840) [7:23]
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op 78 (1828) [30:09]
Symphony No. 6 in G major, Historical Symphony, Op. 116 (1839) [26:07]
Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana/Howard Shelley
rec. March 2009, Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano
HYPERION CDA67788 [63:38]

Listening to the music of Louis Spohr is a bit like listening to a pastiche of Romantic symphonic music. Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schuman and even Brahms are all audible. But whereas his younger contemporaries developed and extended the symphonic form, Spohr continued to work through the same increasingly depleted seam of creativity, gradually rendering his music indistinct, and relegating him to the status of minor composer.

This decline can be traced through Hyperion’s latest release of Spohr symphonies. No. 3 is a bright, sunny work, completed in 1828 while the composer was securely ensconced as Kapellmeister at Kassel. The musical themes and orchestration bear strong resemblances to Schumann - despite the fact the his first symphony was not written until 1841 - but there are also shades of Rossini in the Italianate Allegro section of the first movement (track 2), and touches of Beethoven in the final Allegro (track 5). Overall, though, the symphony lacks a distinctive voice, and, although pleasant to listen to, it hardly makes an impact.

Move on more than ten years and we come to the Symphony No. 6, subtitled Historical Symphony in the style and taste of four different periods. This is intentional pastiche, with each of the four movements modelled on the musical styles of different periods: the Baroque (‘Bach-Handel Period 1720’), the Classical (‘Haydn-Mozart Period 1780’), the Romantic (‘Beethoven Period 1810’) and the Modern (‘Very Latest Period 1840’). The first audience in London in 1840 was baffled, and it is easy to see why. Spohr does not attempt to replicate the works of his predecessors, but nor does he boldly experiment with them, Instead, he adopts certain characteristics like the Bach fugue and a Mozart symphonic theme and leisurely plays around with them. There are no surprises. Even the final movement (track 9) ditches any notion of modernity and simply imitates the current fashion for French grand opera with a rather facile march.

As a filler, Howard Shelley and the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana begin the CD with the first ever recording of Spohr’s overture to his 1840 oratorio The Fall of Babylon, which was first performed at the Norwich Musical Festival in 1842. It is easy to see why no-one has bothered to record it before. Mostly consisting of a jolly but unmemorable march, it sounds like a bland version of Mendelssohn.

John-Pierre Joyce 

see also review by Rob Barnett