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8.225307 - SPOHR, L.: String Quartets (Complete), Vol. 11 - Nos. 32 and 34 (Moscow Philharmonic Concertino String Quartet)
Louis Spohr (1784-1859)
Quartet No. 32 in C major, Op. 141 (February 1849)
Quartet No. 34 in E flat major, Op. 152 (June-July 1855)
The composition of string quartets ran as a continuous thread throughout Spohr’s life. He wrote his first, Op. 4, at about the age of twenty, and more than fifty years later his last completed large-scale work was his String Quartet No. 36, Op. 157. This varied body of works constitutes a significant contribution to the quartet literature of the first half of the nineteenth century; it contains abundant examples of the harmonic and melodic features and the experiments in form and metre that fascinated his contemporaries.
At the time of Spohr’s birth in 1784, Haydn’s innovative Op. 33 quartets had been published for only two years, and Mozart, inspired by their masterly handling of the medium, was still working on his six quartets dedicated to Haydn. Over the next few years Mozart produced his last quartets, while Haydn rose to new heights in the series of works that began with Op. 50 in 1787, and in 1801 Beethoven published his six Op. 18 quartets. During Spohr’s formative years as student and Kammermusicus in Brunswick, he came to know and love this repertoire of chamber music which he played, along with works by lesser contemporaries, at frequent quartet parties. It was to have a lasting impression on his own approach to quartet writing. His devotion to Mozart, in particular, was to remain intense throughout his life, and he retained a lively admiration for Haydn. Despite his often quoted criticisms of Beethoven’s later works he was, in fact, among the earliest champions of the Op. 18 quartets in northern Germany and performed them within a very short time of their publication; indeed, on his concert tour of 1804 his advocacy of these quartets put him at odds with some notable musicians. In Berlin the celebrated cellist and composer Bernhard Romberg, after complimenting him on his performance of one of them, remarked disparagingly, ‘But my dear Spohr, how can you bear to play such absurd stuff?’
Spohr’s activity as a virtuoso violinist, however, also brought him into direct contact with a radically different kind of quartet which was profoundly to influence his approach to the medium: this was the socalled Quatuor brillant or Solo-Quartett. Since the piano was not yet the universal accompaniment instrument it later became, many violinist-composers wrote pieces with string accompaniment to provide them with a repertoire in which they could display their technical brilliance at soirées and other occasions when an orchestra was not available. The Quatuor brillant, a kind of chamber concerto, was a natural outcome of this. During Spohr’s early concert tours, when Beethoven’s quartets failed to interest his audience, he could always count on rousing their enthusiasm with a performance of the Quartet in E flat major, Op. 11 (1804) by the much admired French violinist Pierre Rode, which, though not published with the title quatuor brillant, was an important precursor of the genre.
The influence both of the Viennese classics and of virtuoso violin music is clearly evident in Spohr’s own works for string quartet. The virtuoso tradition is emphasized in two potpourris and two sets of variations with string trio accompaniment, composed during the years 1804 to 1808, and in his eight virtuoso quartets, written between 1806 and 1835. His first Quatuor brillant, Op. 11, which he described in a letter to his publisher, Kühnel, as ‘of the Rode type’, was followed by five more which were published with the same title. These are in three movements, without a minuet or scherzo, after the pattern of Rode’s prototypes. A seventh, Op. 30, was similarly designated on the autograph score despite its four movements, and Op. 27 too, though it was published as Grand quatuor, is in the same tradition, being referred to in Spohr’s autobiography as a Solo-Quartett. But Spohr clearly recognised the essential difference between the Solo- Quartett and the ‘true’ quartet, and in his other 28 quartets the emphasis is on dialogue among the instruments. Though difficult, even virtuoso, passages are often given to the first violin and sometimes to the other instruments, these are skilfully integrated into the general design so that the main focus is on a conversational working out of motifs. For Spohr technical brilliance was always at the service of loftier musical aims, and, on the whole, his quartets achieve a notably successful synthesis of the classical and virtuoso polarities in his musical nature.
The Quartet No. 32 in C major, Op. 141, dates from February 1849, Spohr’s 27th year as Kapellmeister at Kassel, and continues the mood of optimism which found its outlet in his String Sextet, Op. 140 (also in C major), written in March-April 1848 at the time of the revolution which Spohr openly supported. The warm and sinuous expansive opening theme of the quartet, with its rich harmonies, points ahead to Brahms and the mood of well-being extends throughout this Allegro moderato. In the substantial development Spohr concentrates on an important staccato linking motif along with the markedly melodic second subject. The movement closes with a version of the main theme overlaid with what Hans Glenewinkel, in his 1912 study of Spohr’s quartets, calls ‘interwoven figures resembling the silvery threads of a spider’s web’. Gentle, serene emotion dominates the F major Larghetto which features many delicate details. Semiquaver triplets provide a contrast but do not greatly disturb the overall peaceful progress of the movement. The C minor Scherzo, in the rhythm of a Spanish bolero, disrupts the warm-hearted flow of the earlier movements. The forceful main motif is always interrupted by chromaticisms which cast over the Scherzo an atmosphere of deep melancholy. The Trio in A flat major is a more relaxed étude for the first violin. After repeats of the Scherzo and Trio, the melancholy material completely dominates the short coda. The mood of the Scherzo is immediately thrown off by the carefree Presto finale. The three notes which open the movement successively in each of the four instruments are used to generate many components of the finale. They launch the piquant second subject whose flow is suddenly slowed down in its seventh bar and is marked to be played ‘always pianissimo’ for 27 bars. This lengthy pianissimo is also featured in the development which then introduces a fugato above the main theme. The work ends confidently with emphatic chords.
By 1850 the revolution had been suppressed. Prussian and Bavarian troops arrived in Kassel to enforce martial law and in letters to friends at the time the composer made no attempt to hide his depression at this turn of events. ‘If I were not too old I would now emigrate to the free country of America”, he said.
By the time Spohr wrote his Quartet No. 34 in E flat major, Op. 152, in June and July 1855, the crackdown had proved brutally effective and the ruling Prince was running his state in his old authoritarian way. The quartet carries an undertow of sadness and Spohr sets the mood right at the start by prefacing the first movement with a pensive and questioning slow introduction. The opening four-note figure plays a major rôle in the progress of the whole movement as it provides the launching pad for both first and second subjects. It at one stage displays an audacity unprecedented in Spohr where, over syncopations in the cello, a jarring dissonance remains unresolved. This feature returns in the same form in the Allegro in which Spohr replaces a conventional development with a fugato. Syncopation is an important unsettling factor right up to the last bars. In the A flat major Larghetto con moto the composer is unable to shake off the atmosphere of melancholy and syncopations also invade the sweetly lyrical opening theme. Complex inner chromaticisms prevent the music from soaring free above care in the contrasting section dominated by sextuplet figures. The Menuetto in E flat major provides a strong contrast in which the opening dotted rocking accompanying motif contends with the main theme for melodic prominence to produce a bizarrely restless yet attractive effect. The Trio in A flat major is notable for a folksong-like melody which the first violin has to execute mainly in testing double-stops. This theme returns briefly to end the movement. The finale finds a lighter, even frivolous, tone and the second subject, a variant of the first, includes some neat interplay between the two violinists (varied to first violin and viola in the recapitulation). The first subject starts the development but Spohr then springs a surprise - a completely new theme begins a fugato under which the cello eventually repeats the first four notes of the opening motif. After the recapitulation there is a brief reference to the fugato material along with the cello’s four-note signal and the quartet concludes with a diminuendo to a minor key plagal cadence. Spohr has found that frivolity cannot prevail and the mood of the times cannot be so easily overcome.
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