Notes and Editorial Reviews
Double Quartets: No. 1; No. 2
NAXOS 8.570963 (51:31)
Unusual for an active performing violin virtuoso of his era, the German born Ludwig (Louis) Spohr (1784–1859) wrote much music other than violin concertos, string quartets, and chamber works featuring the violin. His output includes nine completed symphonies, concertos for clarinet, oratorios, a mass, numerous songs, and several operas, of which
still retain some currency. Spohr’s music is fairly typical for its time, which is to say it does its best to pretend that Beethoven never happened, while embracing the early Romantic leanings of Reicha, Weber, and Onslow.
Two years before Mendelssohn produced his famous string Octet in 1825, Spohr published the first of four works he would call “double quartets.” One needn’t expend too much time or energy fretting over the designation. Upon eventually encountering the Mendelssohn, Spohr wrote, “Mendelssohn’s popular Octet belongs to quite another kind of art in which the two quartets do not concert and interchange in double choir with each other but all eight instruments work together.” Yet, according to Keith Warsop’s insert note, by the time Spohr came to write his second Double Quartet in E? Major in 1827, he “integrates the players into a more evenly balanced whole.” In other words, he co-opts Mendelssohn’s approach. Moreover, sources that discuss these four Spohr works tend to exchange the terms “double quartet” and “octet” fairly freely. The most significant feature that sets Spohr’s double quartets apart from Mendelssohn’s octet is not compositional technique; rather, it’s that the former are works of a virtuoso violinist and highly talented composer, while the latter is a work of consummate genius, which, of its type, has never been surpassed.
Thus, as the singing of others pales beside Mendelssohn’s brilliant voice, it is difficult to listen to these Spohr double quartets and not find them wanting. The music is not without interest, its melodies are engaging, and its harmonic excursions sometimes adventurous; but it doesn’t fire the imagination, stir the emotions, or linger in the memory. The spell it casts lives in the moment, but it’s not lasting. Such is the charm of these works that they summon recollections of Haydn’s robust, earthy humor and amiability more than they anticipate Mendelssohn’s gossamer sprites and faeries. The Allegro molto finale of Spohr’s D-Minor Double Quartet No. 1 is the one movement that comes closest to foreshadowing Mendelssohn’s Octet, with its semiquaver runs and melodic line in the treble propelled forward by drumming measured tremolandos in the lower voices.
The Forde Ensemble is another of those “flexible” British musical establishments, like the Nash Ensemble, that expands and shrinks in complement depending on the work being performed. The difference is that the group is made up exclusively of string instruments, and its players are drawn from among the principals of London’s major orchestras. Their main performance venue is the Forde Abbey, a 900-year-old former Cistercian monastery in Somerset. The current CD, however, was recorded at St. Mark’s Church, Purley, in Surrey.
If the Forde Ensemble has made other recordings prior to this one, I do not find them listed. Nor are they the first to present these works on record. The Double Quartet in D-Minor in particular has found advocates, including a 1968 RCA recording with Heifetz, Primrose, and Piatigorsky; a period-instrument version with L’Archibudelli and the Smithsonian Chamber Players on Sony’s Vivarte Series; and a performance on Hyperion by that trusted standby, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble.
Of the three, the last named affords the closest comparison to the Forde Ensemble in terms of performance practice and style. The ASMF, now available in Hyperion’s budget Dyad series containing all four of Spohr’s double quartets, is quite good, if a bit overcooked, which is sometimes the ASMF’s wont. For those who already have the Hyperion, this new Naxos disc may be superfluous to the collector for whom Spohr doesn’t merit that much shelf space. Personally, however, I prefer the brighter sound on the new CD, and I find more to my liking the Forde Ensemble’s stylish playing. So, both a solid recommendation and an eager anticipation of the second volume containing Spohr’s two remaining double quartets.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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.
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, MusicWeb International
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