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Louis SPOHR (1784-1859)
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 121 The Earthly and the Divine in Human Life (1841/42) [33.10]
Symphony No. 9 in B minor, Op. 143 The Seasons (1849/50) [27.27]
Waltz, Souvenir of Marienbad, Op. 89 (1833) [10.06]
NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover/Howard Griffiths
rec. 2010-12, Großer Sendesaal des NDR Landesfunkhaus, Hanover, Germany
CPO SACD 777 746-2 [70.48]

With this release CPO has now reached volume 5 in its acclaimed series of the complete symphonic works of German composer Louis Spohr. The series is founded on the latest critical editions of Spohr’s scores by Bert Hagels and here we have two programmatic symphonies works together with a waltz, Souvenir of Marienbad. Like London busses all arriving at once after a dearth of recordings another fine series of Spohr symphonies by the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana under Howard Shelley was recently completed in 2012 on Hyperion.

Spohr won a substantial and distinguished reputation during the first half of the nineteenth century as a violin virtuoso, conductor, author, teacher and the prolific composer of over one hundred works. It’s hard to believe today that, following Beethoven’s death in 1827, Spohr was acclaimed as the greatest living composer. In the nineteenth century Spohr’s predisposition towards the Classical side appeared out of step with those brought up on the heady Romantic sounds of Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss. This led to relatively swift demotion from his former high status. The self-promotion of his works that had been so crucial ended with Spohr’s death in 1859 and his music soon lost its hold altogether.

Despite the sterling efforts of many enthusiastic devotees Spohr’s music remains more of a curiosity than of widespread appeal. Nevertheless a slow but sure revival is underway thanks mainly to enterprising record companies such as Naxos and its sister company Marco Polo and the smaller more specialist labels such as Claves, Orfeo, MDG, Hyperion and CPO. Certainly in the UK I see no sign of Spohr’s revival in the recording studio being translated into concert hall/recital performances.

Composed in 1841/42 the Symphony No. 7 somewhat burdened with the pretentious title The Earthly and the Divine in Human Life has an uncommon design owing to its scoring for two orchestras. J.C. Bach’s orchestral works for double ensemble are a possible precedent for Spohr using this type of scoring but I’m unsure whether he knew of them. The first ensemble is an eleven piece group, one musician to a part, depicting ‘good’ with the second group a string orchestra representing ‘evil’. Opening the first movement Kinderwelt: Adagio - Allegro is a considerable horn solo quite splendidly played. This is music evocative of an appealing folk-dance with an enchanting child-like glow imbued. Upbeat in character, the central movement Zeit der Leidenschaften: Larghetto - Allegro moderato overflows with high-spirits. There is a prominent and attractive part for solo violin. In the closing movement, marked Endilcher Sieg des Gottlichen: Presto the rather dreamy character is contrasted with writing of a more restless quality.

Scored for large orchestra the Symphony No. 9 with its self explanatory title The Seasons was written in 1849/50. Following an unusual four part design it is divided into a pair of distinct parts each consisting of two movements. The movements in each part are connected with a transition passage serving as an introduction. Part one commences with Winter - an Allegro Maestoso that moves easily and endearingly from relative calm into the dramatic. There is a strong bucolic character to the writing of the second section of part one: the transition to Spring: L'istesso tempo and Spring: Moderato – Presto – Moderato. Here it is easy to imagine idyllic country settings with farmhouses and verdant fields. Part 2 begins with Summer - a Largo evoking stifling heat and calm and even languid moods. Blustery and weighty the second section of part two the Introduction to Autumn: Allegro Vivace and Autumn: L'istesso tempo is melodically engaging. Not surprisingly, throughout the work I was frequently reminded of the orchestral writing of Spohr’s contemporaries Mendelssohn, Schumann and Beethoven.

Inspired by the high quality of the Marienbad orchestra in Bohemia, Spohr composed his Waltz, Souvenir of Marienbad, Op. 89 a score that was intended to be a ‘waltz à la
Strauss’. Undemanding and reasonably agreeable it has an attractive flute part but the Marienbad waltz made little impact. Lacking in Viennese lilt it certainly did not remind me of the waltzes of Johann Strauss I.

I played this hybrid SACD on my standard player. CPO does very well indeed with glorious sonics that are crystal-clear and well balanced. Of real merit is the interesting and highly informative booklet essay, however, the rear cover insert of the jewel case gives incorrect track numbers which are accurate inside the booklet. In the last few years I have attended concerts given by the NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover in Dresden and Berlin and I can attest to the qualities of this splendid orchestra. Under Howard Griffiths it is hard to fault these accomplished musicians who play with characteristic spirit and commitment. With surety of control, considerate pacing and disarming expressiveness Griffiths makes the best possible case for what are hardly the most profound works one is likely to encounter.

Predominantly upbeat and consistently undemanding there is much enjoyable, well crafted and splendidly performed music here even if it is rather lacking in depth and memorable substance.

Michael Cookson



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