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Louis SPOHR (1785-1859)
Nonet in F, Op. 31 (1813) [27:50]
Octet in E major, Op. 32 (1814) [27:04]
The Nash Ensemble
rec. Unitarian Chapel, Rosslyn Chapel, Hampstead; no recording date(s) given, 1979?.
CRD 3354 [56:20]

At a time when I had given this CD several listenings and was about to start on a review of it, the necessity of moving a lot of books out of a particular room in the house turned up a copy of Derek Watson’s Dictionary of Musical Quotations (1991), reprinted by Wordsworth Reference in 1994 – a book I had forgotten about. Naturally enough, I looked up such comments on Spohr as Watson had included. There were only two, as follows:

There was a composer named Spohr
Whose works were a hundred or mohr.
His great work Jessonda
Long time was a wonda
But now his successes are o’hr.
Musical Herald, 1888

An academic pedant of the first rank.
Edvard Grieg
Quoted in Finck, Grieg and His Music, 1906

Turn to the first English translation of Spohr’s Autobiography, published in London in 1865, just a few years after the composer’s death, and one finds a very different judgement. In a Preface the anonymous translator identifies Spohr as a “great Composer”, and a “great musical genius”.

I would suggest that Spohr was neither “an academic pedant” nor a “great musical genius”. The one judgement (that of Grieg and the anonymous versifier) expresses that denigration of an artist, which often takes place after his/her death, when taste has changed and many feel intrinsically superior to their predecessors, taking the historically parochial standards of their own day to be, as it were, absolute and timeless. The other view (that of the anonymous translator) makes the error frequently made in judgements of contemporaries, mistaking high talent for genius. The limerick writer admits that Spohr did have many “successes” and that his most famous opera, Jessonda “long time was a wonda”. Nobody denies, in other words, that Spohr achieved great popularity, finding, in the translator’s words “many admirers”. That popularity should have no effect, positive or negative, on how later listeners judge his music, though we should probably seek to put his work in some kind of historical context in making our judgements. To judge Spohr whole, as it were, is exceedingly difficult for us. We are unlikely, as things stand, to get many opportunities to see any of his operas, and his symphonies are mostly less than compelling (I have never heard one in the concert hall). But the chamber music (where I suspect much of Spohr’s best work is to be found) has, I am glad to say, benefitted from a number of modern performances/recordings. I haven’t heard all of Spohr’s 36 String Quartets, but I have heard enough to want to hear more. Though himself a violin virtuoso of considerable standing, Spohr’s ear was well attuned to more than just string instruments and he often wrote particularly well when he tackled combinations of strings, winds and/or brass instruments in his chamber music – as here.

Both of these works were written during the time Spohr spent in Vienna, where, in 1813, he had been appointed Leader and Director of the orchestra at the Theater an der Wien. He stayed in the city until February 1815 and while there, he became acquainted with Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven - and also with a certain Johann von Tost. Spohr’s Autobiography explains how, soon after he and his wife had settled in Vienna:

one morning a stranger of gentlemanly exterior called on me, who introduced himself as Herr von Tost, a proprietor of [cloth] manufactories and a passionate lover of music. In excuse for the intrusiveness of his visit he pleaded his desire to make a proposition to me. After he had seated himself, and I full of expectation had taken a chair opposite to him, he first expressed his admiration of my talent as a Composer, and then the wish that I would assign over to him for a proportionate pecuniary consideration all that I might compose or had already written in Vienna, for the term of three years, to be his sole property during that time; to give him the original scores, and to keep myself, even, no copy of them. After the lapse of three years he would return the manuscripts to me, and I should then be at liberty either to publish or to sell them. After I had pondered a moment over this strange and enigmatical proposition, I first of all asked him whether the compositions were not to be played during those three years? Hereupon, Herr von Tost replied: oh! “yes, as often as possible, but each time on my lending them for that purpose, and only in my presence.” He would not, he added, prescribe the kind of compositions they should be; but he more particularly wished they should be such as would permit of being produced in Private Circles, therefore, Quartetts and Quintetts for stringed instruments and Sextetts, Octetts and Nonettes for stringed and wind instruments. I was to consider upon his proposal and fix the sum for each kind of composition. Upon this he presented me with his card and took leave of me.

This was a new kind of patronage and Spohr was initially a little suspicious. When von Tost explained that he had “two objects in view. First, I desire to be invited to the music Parties in which you will execute your compositions, and for that I must have them in my keeping; secondly, possessing such treasures of art, I hope upon my business journeys to make an extensive acquaintance among the lovers of music, which may then serve me also in my manufacturing interests!” a deal was struck. Soon von Tost began to influence what Spohr wrote, though the composer seemed not to mind his doing so. Having sold a number of works to his patron, Spohr reports that he then “enquired of him, what kind of composition he would now prefer. My Art-Męcenas, reflected a while, and then said: a Nonet, concerted for the four stringed instruments, Violin, Viol, Violincello, and Double-Bass; and the five principal wind-Instruments, Flute, Oboė, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon, written in such a manner that the character of each of those instruments should be properly brought out, might be both an interesting and grateful theme”. Spohr liked the challenge set by his patron: “I felt attracted by the difficulty of the task, consented to it with pleasure, and commenced the work at once … I completed it in a short time”. The result was to turn out to be one of Spohr’s most enduring successes, and this performance by the Nash Ensemble brings out much of what is most admirable and delightful in it.

Spohr makes ingenious (but never ostentatiously showy) use of all nine instrumental voices and yet for the most part keeps the ensemble textures clear and transparent. Like most of Spohr’s music the listener is rarely challenged or seriously surprised by anything that happens. But what does happen is lucid, full, in this case, of interesting sonorities and attractive melodies. The work is quite tightly-constructed, without being unduly rigorous (in some respects it feels like an updated divertimento or serenade). The four-note sequence with which the initial allegro opens has a role to play throughout that movement and also in the third and fourth movements. The second movement is made up of a scherzo and two trios. In the first of the trios, in A minor, the violin is featured, in music full of quintessentially Viennese charm (Spohr was actually born in Braunschweig [Brunswick] in Saxony). Marcia Crayford’s playing here is a real delight. The second Trio, which deploys the winds in some contrapuntal writing is a little less successful – counterpoint was, oddly, a relatively weak area in Spohr’s compositional repertoire. The ensuing Adagio is a beautiful piece, which opens in relative gravity and darkness (Spohr largely eschews emotional extremes), before evolving into a mood of pleasingly elegant serenity. The Finale, in sonata form, is full of youthful vivacity and vitality (Spohr was not yet thirty). A friend of mine (who hadn’t heard it until I played it to him) described it as ‘chortling’ and there is, indeed, a kind of Haydenesque humour about much of it. If not a work of genius, this Nonet is certainly thoroughly genial and the performance by the Nash Ensemble, which I have known for some years, is amongst the best recordings I have heard. If you own one (or more) of the recordings by the Persius Ensemble (on Genuin), coupled with Clementi’s Nonetto, or by Osmosis (on Outhere), coupled with George Onslow’s Nonet, or even by the Gaudier Ensemble (on Hyperion), with exactly the same coupling as the present disc, you shouldn’t feel the need to replace it by the Nash Ensemble’s performance. But if you would like a second alternative recording alongside the one you already have, or want to buy a first, then this is warmly recommended.

The Octet, also written for von Tost (under the same odd arrangements outlined above) is a similarly charming work, though less individual, some of its materials being developed with less ingenuity. von Tost again had a degree of influence on the work, as Spohr relates in his Autobiography, where he writes of the octet that: “by Herr von Tost’s wish, who then contemplated a journey to England, I took up a theme from Handel, varied, and carried it out thematically, as he was of opinion it would on that account excite great interest in that country”. The initial allegro, while it is structurally quite interesting, is not Spohr at his most attractive. The Menuetto which follows rather overdoes, not for the only time in the composer’s work, the use of chromaticism, though it does have some attractively syncopated melodies. It is in the third movement, ‘Andante con variazioni – tema di Handel, that we emcounter von Tost’s ‘calling card’, the air known as the Harmonious Blacksmith from Handel’s Fifth Harpsichord Suite. Spohr’s six variations are competent and interesting (Spohr is never less than that), but the material doesn’t seem to have fascinated him greatly (one wonders whether he chose the theme or whether von Tost did?). Certainly he makes less of the air than, say, Giuliani does in his variations for guitar Variazioni su un tema di Handel of 1828. But any mild disappointment is swept away by the joy of the work’s Finale, well-made and full of high spirits, which bubbles along bucolically with some immensely attractive interplay between violin, clarinet and horn. While, overall, not as striking as the Nonet, this Octet makes for eminently enjoyable listening.

If the ‘re-discovery’ of Spohr has hitherto passed you by, this would be a good place to start your own acquaintance with Spohr’s music.

Glyn Pursglove

Performer details
Nonet: Judith Pearce, flute; Robin Miller, oboe; Anthony Pay, clarinet; Brian Wightman, bassoon; John Pigneguy, horn; Marcia Crawford, violin; Brian Hawkins, viola; Christopher van Kampen, cello; Rodney Slatford, double bass
Octet: Marcia Crayford, violin, Brian Hawkins, 1st viola; Kenneth Essex, 2nd viola; Christopher van Kampen, cello; Rodney Slatford, double bass; John Pigneguy, 1st horn; Anthony Halstead, 2nd horn



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