Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.
Symphonies: No. 1; No. 6,
Overture in c
Howard Griffiths, cond; N German RPO
CPO 777 179-2 (SACD: 62:09)
This is Volume 3 of Howard
Griffiths’s cycle of the symphonies and concert overtures of Louis Spohr. For some collectors, that’s all the review that’s needed to make a purchase decision; the remaining remarks are for those who may wish to be selective in choosing which volumes of Griffiths’s series to buy, or which of Howard Shelley’s on Hyperion. Either cycle (cpo has now issued six of the 10 symphonies, Hyperion eight) easily supersedes the first recorded set of Spohr symphonies, by Alfred Walter on Marco Polo.
Unfortunately, this volume pairs two of the weakest of the series. The First, composed in 1811 when Spohr was only 27, is in E?-Major; as Bert Hagels, editor of the ongoing critical edition of these works, points out in his excellent notes, it takes its influence from Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 rather than from Beethoven’s “Eroica.” Similarities in thematic material notwithstanding, this symphony has little of the subtle complexity of Mozart’s; the unremitting four-bar phrase structures become tiresome after a while, particularly when compared with the ingeniously ambiguous groupings of, say, Mozart’s opening theme. This is especially true in the Finale and in the second-movement Larghetto, whose tune is just too ingenuous. Spohr was always a composer who was more gifted in technique than in invention, but this symphony suggests that he did develop in thematic sophistication throughout his career, even if he didn’t substantially change his style.
The Sixth Symphony, whose full title is
Historical Symphony in the Style and Taste of Four Different Periods
, was for many years one of those compositions about which music students read in music-history classes, but of which no one ever heard a note. Written in 1840, it aims to reflect in its four movements the periods of Bach and Handel (1720), Haydn and Mozart (1780), Beethoven (1810), and “The Very Latest Period” (“Allerneueste Periode 1840”). As Hagels discusses cogently in his notes (as does Keith Warsop, chairman of the Spohr Society of Great Britain, for the Shelley recording), the purpose and the effect are both ambiguous: The music’s surface is characteristic of the stated models, but to scratch that surface anywhere is to uncover the unmistakable musical personality of Spohr himself. The “1840” Finale, it should be noted, does not simply reflect Spohr’s own style, but seems to emulate, or perhaps lampoon, then-current Parisian opera, with a great deal of percussion throughout. The entire enterprise is disconcerting; in the attempt to meld each period’s (or model’s) style with Spohr’s own, it manages to be faithful to neither.
The “Historical” Symphony is, and will likely remain, a fascinating one-off, a curiosity whose notoriety exceeds its content. It and the First receive fine performances here. A pattern is emerging in the unfolding Spohr cycles of Griffiths and Shelley: Griffiths’s orchestra is a bit more polished than Shelley’s Italian-Swiss one, and Griffiths’s tempos are consistently faster; in these symphonies, they seem simply too fast in the Larghetto of No. 1 and the Finale of No. 6. Cpo’s sound in two channels is more immediate than Hyperion’s, which is quite recessed; of course, the cpo discs are also multichannel, which may be a deciding factor for some collectors. Neither label is cheap, although cpo’s SACDs are actually less expensive than Hyperion’s CDs. The fillers will be a consideration for some, although the very early overture given here (for some reason, it is listed in several references as being in C Major) is about as negligible as anything Spohr wrote. All things considered, you won’t go wrong with either cycle, nor will serious Spohr collectors be satisfied completely by either. I marginally prefer Shelley in these two symphonies; just to make matters more complicated, I like the early Orfeo CD of the “Historical” by Karl Anton Rickenbacher better than either Shelley
With a handful of exceptions (Rickenbacher’s CD of Nos. 6 and 9, an unsatisfactory Marco Polo version of No. 2 by Choo Hoey, and a couple of versions of No. 3, now unavailable), the mediocre Walter readings were for years the only option for anyone who wished to look into Spohr’s symphonies—and before that, of course, there was no option at all. It is a blessing, therefore, to have two high-quality complete cycles (both including the posthumous No. 10, which had not yet seen the light of day when Walter made his recordings) in the works. The present disc, while it wouldn’t be high on my priority list for nonspecialists, will certainly be welcomed by Spohr enthusiasts.
FANFARE: Richard A. Kaplan
Works on This Recording
Overture in C minor, Op. 12 by Louis Spohr
North German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1806; Germany
Symphony no 1 in E flat major, Op. 20 by Louis Spohr
North German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1811; Gotha, Germany
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