Louis SPOHR (1785-1859)
Nonet in F, Op. 31 (1813) [27:50]
Octet in E major, Op. 32 (1814) [27:04]
The Nash Ensemble (Nonet: Judith Pearce (flute); Robin Miller (oboe); Anthony Pay (clarinet); Brian Wightman (bassoon); John Pigneguy (horn); Marcia Crayford (violin); Brian Hawkins (viola); Christopher van Kampen (cello); Rodney Slatford (double bass); Octet: Marcia Crayford (violin); (Brian Hawkins (viola I); Kenneth Essex (viola II); Christopher van Kampen (cello); Rodney Slatford (double bass); John Pigneguy (horn I); Anthony Halstead (horn II)
rec. Unitarian Chapel, Rosslyn Chapel, Hampstead, London; no date given. ADD.
CRD 3354 [56:20]

Spohr is one of those composers who have been left behind by history. In his own lifetime and for many years after he was regarded as one of the greats. Fans of the Savoy operas will remember that in The Mikado he was placed between Bach and Beethoven as a composer you might expect to hear at ‘classical Monday pops’. The final blow to his reputation came when his opera Jessonda, said to be his masterpiece, was banned by the Nazis because it showed an inter-racial marriage. In recent years, for him, as for so many forgotten composers, recording has come to the rescue. It is through recordings that you can explore his ten symphonies, his four clarinet concertos and a sprinkling of other works, including Jessonda, since they rarely turn up in concert programmes.

This is unfair because his music is well-crafted, tuneful and attractive. Since this is precisely what many music-lovers want from music it is a little strange that he has been so neglected but perhaps this is also part of the problem. In fact the music which comes to matter to us tends to make greater demands, to have a certain amount of intellectual grit, which forces us to stretch our ears and listen again to understand what is going on. Hence the lasting appeal of, say, Bach and Beethoven, while what is heard with greater ease is forgotten with equal ease.

However, the Nonet is one of the works which seems to have survived. It is written for a combination of wind quintet with a string quartet but this latter is not formed in the conventional way but consists of one each of violin, viola, cello and double bass. This became so successful that this combination was taken up by other composers who wrote nonets. There are four movements, with the second a scherzo with two trios and the third an adagio which takes up the motif from the opening of the first movement. The finale has one of those tunes which one seems to have known all one’s life, though I found I had forgotten it as soon as it ended.

The Octet is scored for an unusual group consisting of clarinet, two horns, violin, two violas, cello and double bass. It is less high-spirited than the Nonet but equally graceful with a particularly fetching Minuet as its second movement with interesting cross-rhythms and chromaticisms. The following set of variations, on Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith – apparently chosen to please an English audience – is rather tame. However, the finale makes amends with bubbling good humour.

Such works needs to be performed with charm and grace, and it is no surprise that the Nash Ensemble provide this. They are a mixed ensemble, a pool of players from which the players needed for any chamber work can be drawn, and they have been a leading British mixed ensemble for some forty years, since the time of the Melos Ensemble before them. Spohr provides plenty of opportunities for the individual players to shine, some of which sound very challenging to play, though not to listen to, and the players seize these with joy. This is a straight reissue of a CD transfer first issued in 1996 but of an analogue recording which must date back some fifteen years earlier. It wears its years lightly. The notes are brief but adequate and the lovely picture of old Vienna on the front cover adds to the attraction of this issue. There are several other recordings of both works but the obvious competition is the same coupling from the Gaudier Ensemble on Hyperion CDA66699. I am sure that is excellent, but I have been very taken with the charm of the Nash Ensemble, and I see that they have recorded a coupling of Spohr’s septet and piano quintet (CRD3399) which I am now tempted to explore.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: Glyn Pursglove

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