Notes and Editorial Reviews
Nonet. Octet. Quintet for Piano and Winds.
Double Quartet No. 3
Walter Panhofer (pn); Vienna Octet
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 2400 (2 CDs: 115:02)
Now 150 years after his death, posterity still isn’t sure what to do about Louis Spohr (1784–1859). He had the misfortune, at least seen in retrospect, of being a contemporary of Beethoven. Celebrated as a leading composer and the foremost German violinist during the earlier part of his
career (he was even referred to as the “German Paganini”), Spohr lived to see his compositions eclipsed by those of later composers—though he himself was an early champion of Wagner—and after his death was relegated to the status of a footnote in music history; during most of the 20th century he was best remembered for a single novelty composition, the “Gesangszene” Violin Concerto, and for having pioneered the use of the chin rest on the violin and the baton on the podium.
There’s a good chance that if you were introduced to the chamber music of Spohr during the 1960s or 70s, it was through these Vienna Octet recordings. Interestingly, of the four works the group recorded, three are among Spohr’s four chamber works including winds; there is also a late septet for piano, violin, cello, and four winds. The Nonet and the Double Quartet were never issued in London’s full-price CS series, their first release in the U.S. being instead on the budget Stereo Treasury label; the Octet was never distributed here on LP. Mono recordings of the Nonet and Octet by an earlier incarnation of the Vienna Octet were issued on London, in 1952 and 1955 respectively, but never saw wide circulation; the former is now available on a Testament CD.
The Nonet in F Major, in fact, has proved to be Spohr’s most popular chamber work; light-hearted and tuneful—the quality his music is most frequently criticized for lacking—it features a shadowy D-Minor Scherzo with two trios, the first featuring the solo violin, the second written almost exclusively for winds, and a heartfelt Adagio in B?. It receives a lively performance here in crystal-clear sound.
The Octet, written in 1814, a year after the Nonet and on the same commission, calls for the unique combination of clarinet, two horns, violin, two violas, cello, and bass. While not as popular as the Nonet or the Quintet also included in this set, the Octet may be the finest of Spohr’s large-scale chamber works. The violin part, as always intended for the composer himself, and the horn parts are fearsome; this 1959 recording, the earliest of the set, is the only one to include the Vienna Octet’s founding first violinist, Willi Boskovsky, whose playing is typically stylish despite the part’s technical difficulties, which are compounded by the group’s uncompromising tempos. The ingenious third-movement variations on Handel’s “Harmonious Blacksmith” (the work was intended for a performance in England, where Handel’s music was still enormously popular) could have used the presence of the Philharmonic’s principal horn player, Roland Berger, or anyone named Brain. Still, this enormously attractive work makes a fine effect here.
The 1820 Quintet was written for Spohr’s wife, who was in poor health and in the process of giving up the harp for her first instrument, the piano. It differs from the quintets of Mozart and Beethoven in calling for flute rather than oboe, with a resulting lightness of texture, and remains one of Spohr’s most accessible works. This performance was taped in 1969, the latest of the four given here, and features pianist Walter Panhofer, who regularly joined the Vienna Octet in pieces calling for piano. He plays with a suitably sensitive touch, and the wind sound is beautifully blended and transparent.
Spohr’s four double quartets call for the same instrumentation as Mendelssohn’s miraculous 1825 Octet, but the deployment is quite different; the two quartets maintain a great degree of independence, with the first quartet doing almost all the “heavy lifting” and the second (likely the local group wherever Spohr toured) relegated to a less difficult accompanying role. (Spohr’s first work in this genre, incidentally, predates the Mendelssohn by two years.) The third of these, in E Minor, is a serious work with an
introduction and a formidable workout for the first violin in the C-Major variation movement. The otherwise authoritative notes by Tully Potter suggest that this is generally regarded as the finest of the double quartets, but there is only one competing version on ArkivMusic, compared with eight for the First Double Quartet, which was championed by Jascha Heifetz in the 60s.
Only the lack of exposition repeats prevents these recordings from being competitive with the finest modern versions, of which in the Nonet I would single out that of the Ensemble Villa Musica on MDG as the most distinguished. In the Octet the Viennese also omit the repeat of the second part of the Menuetto (really a scherzo); for a complete, modern performance, try the Nash Ensemble on CRD. In the Quintet the Ensemble Villa Musica, with pianist Kalle Randalu, again trumps all the modern competition I’ve heard. Finally, the generally admirable 1966 recording of the double quartet also skips a repeat in the second-movement variations and two more in the Scherzo. The alternative, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble on Hyperion, is complete and a bit more polished, but also more generic, and the highly resonant acoustic may not be to every listener’s liking; on the other hand, Hyperion offers the four double quartets complete in a two-for-one set. I wouldn’t be without either version.
This is a delightful collection of the finest chamber music by one of music’s great underrated composers. I defy anyone not to like it.
FANFARE: Richard A. Kaplan Read less
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