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8.553164 - SPOHR: Piano Trios Nos. 3 and 5
Louis Spohr (1784 - 1859)
Louis Spohr won an enormous reputation during the nineteenth century as a composer, violin virtuoso, conductor and teacher as well as being renowned for his upright, noble character, a man of convinced liberal and democratic beliefs who was not afraid of speaking out against the repression and autocracy which abounded during his lifetime in the small German principalities (his contemporaries also saw this "upright character" translated into physical terms as he was nearly 6ft 7in tall). He was one of music's great travellers, wrote an entertaining and informative autobiography, compiled an influential violin tutor, invented the chin-rest, was one of the pioneers of conducting with the baton and hit on the idea of putting letters in a score as an aid to rehearsals. So when, in a Hollywood film about music, a Leopold Stokowski-like conductor taps his baton at rehearsal and says to the orchestra: "Back to Letter F, gentlemen", it is Spohr's innovation we are witnessing.
Spohr was born in the North German city of Braunschweig (Brunswick) on 5th April, 1784, and as a boy showed talent for the violin. When he was fifteen he joined the ducal orchestra and by the age of eighteen had reached the stage at which the Duke of Brunswick considered him ready for further development. He was, therefore, sent on a year-long study tour with the virtuoso Franz Anton Eck (1774-1804), taking in various centres on the way to the then Russian capital St. Petersburg. It was at this time that Spohr wrote his first mature compositions - some violin duets followed by his first Violin Concerto, Op. 1. After his return home, the Duke granted him leave to make a concert-tour of North Germany and Spohr shot to overnight fame in the German lands after a concert in Leipzig in December, 1804, received an enthusiastic review from the influential critic Friedrich Rochlitz - not only for his violin playing but also for his concertos, especially No. 2 in D minor, Op. 2. Spohr now set out on successful career which took him as concertmaster to the court of Gotha (1805-12), orchestra leader at Vienna's Theater an der Wien, where he became friendly with Beethoven (1813-15), opera director at Frankfurt (1817-19) and finally, Hofkapellmeister at Kassel (1822-57) where he died on 22nd October, 1859. In between, he found time for numerous concert-tours, most notably to Italy (1816-17), England (1820) and Paris (1821), with his wife, the harp virtuoso Dorette Scheidler (1787-1834). In later years he reduced the number of his public violin appearances but his renown as a conductor led to many invitations to take charge of music festivals, including the inauguration of the Beethoven Monument in Bonn in 1845 as well as further visits to England in 1839, 1843, 1847, 1852 and 1853. He also trained some two hundred violinists, conductors and composers and, indeed, he was the antithesis of the "lonely, tormented artist". He loved parties, was a gifted painter, an enthusiastic rose-grower, a keen swimmer and hiker, played chess, billiards, dominoes, whist and ball-games, and, as well as visiting such cultural attractions as art galleries, churches and the like, also toured factories, mines and other industrial installations, all in the pursuit of knowledge. He was also interested in politics and during the short-lived German national parliaments following the 1830 and 1848 revolutions he listened to as many debates as he was able. As a conductor Spohr championed many of the best composers of his time, even when he was not totally in sympathy with their style (Spohr's own idol and ideal was Mozart and, like his hero, Spohr was a committed Freemason). His repertoire ranged from Beethoven's symphonies, including the Ninth, concertos and quartets, Fidelio and the Missa Solemnis, to Wagner's Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser, and he helped in the revival of earlier masterpieces such as Bach's St. Matthew Passion. Late in his career he added to his repertoire works by Schubert, Schumann, Berlioz and Liszt among others.
From the start of his career, Spohr aspired to be something more than just a violinist who wrote concertos, like Viotti, Kreutzer, Rode, Paganini, de Beriot, Vieuxtemps, Ernst or Wieniawski, and expanded his compositional scope to include opera, oratorio, cantata, lieder, symphony, chamber music and, especially in the first years of his marriage, works involving the harp. Gradually he took a place among the leading composers of his day, particularly for his fine concertos, overtures and first two symphonies. Soon after settling in Kassel, the success of his opera Jessonda in 1823 and his oratorio Die letzten Dinge (The Last Judgment) in 1826 won him a place in the accepted pantheon of great composers. Spohr's importance for his contemporaries and what captured them and enraptured them was his richness of harmony and command of modulation and chromaticism. While the content of his works made him, along with Weber, a pioneer of early Romanticism, he generally adhered to classical proportions when it came to form although his four programme symphonies helped to establish this genre. Later in the nineteenth century this classical side of his personality appeared old-fashioned to those brought up on the heady sounds of Wagner, Tchaikovsky or Strauss and led to his relegation from his former high status. His best works, however, stayed in the repertoire throughout the century, while Jessonda was still staged at intervals in Germany (it was admired by Brahms and Strauss, among others) until it was banned by the Nazis because it showed a European hero marrying an Indian princess. In Great Britain The Last Judgment remained a favourite of provincial choral societies until the First World War when a reaction against things Victorian set in. A few works have stayed with us - the enjoyable Nonet and Octet are often performed by groups who want items to programme alongside the Beethoven Septet or the Schubert Octet; the 8th Violin Concerto, Op. 47, the one "in the form of vocal scena", can still tempt virtuosi; as can the four fine clarinet concertos (recorded on Naxos 8.550588-89). However, the slow revival of the rest of his output is only now under way but is already uncovering many delightful pieces.
The piano, however, had proved a notable exception to Spohr's gradually growing artistic triumphs. His own piano technique was rudimentary. Indeed in 1838 his Kassel assistant Moritz Hauptmann wrote to a friend: "Spohr said the other day that he would give a hundred Louis d'or to be able to play the piano." But Spohr was nothing if not dedicated in his determination to attempt "all branches of composition", as he put it. Within eleven years of Hauptmann's comment, he had produced five piano trios which rank among the best of the works dating from the later stages of his career. In the early 1800s he had felt that the piano, as it had been developed then, was not suitable for concerted works at all but only for the salon. By 1820, when he was in London and heard the English Broadwood pianos of the time, he changed his opinion and, as Dorette by now had been forced to give up the harp for health reasons, he composed for her a Piano and Wind Quintet in the hope of encouraging her to take up the instrument on which she had excelled in her youth. The quintet relies for its piano technique on the models of the virtuosi of the day such as Clementi, Field, Dussek, Hummel, Moscheles and Ries. Chopin, who thought the work "most beautiful", also complained that it was almost impossible to work out a practical fingering. So there events stayed until Spohr remarried in 1836, after Dorette' s death. His new wife, Marianne Pfeiffer, was an accomplished amateur who soon introduced Spohr to the latest piano works of composers like Mendelssohn, Chopin and Schumann. Fired with enthusiasm Spohr composed three large-scale sonatas for violin and piano, a number of smaller pieces for the same combination and a mass of songs with piano accompaniment. His first Trio (E minor, Op. 119) was completed in May, 1841, and appeared to rapturous acclaim by the critics so that his publisher was soon asking for more. It was not for nothing that the trio was published as Trio Concertant, for, as one reviewer pointed out: "Through all the details of its construction, even to the manner of using the instruments in combination, it has no parallel in the trios of Beethoven, Hummel, Mendelssohn, or any other writer." It was Spohr's specialist knowledge of string techniques which enabled him to give the violin and cello equality with the piano and also to introduce novel sonorities which earlier trio composers scarcely envisaged, such as at times giving the cello the real bass of the ensemble with the pianist's left hand playing well above it. The succeeding Trios No.2 in F major, Op. 123 of 1842, No.4 in B flat major, Op. 133 of 1846 and the two recorded here continued this process.
Piano Trio No.3 in A minor, Op. 124, The third trio was finished in October, 1842, and shows Spohr' s lyrical gift at its strongest. The cellist takes centre stage for the opening theme while the second subject is a broad, romantic tune which plays an unusually major rôle throughout the movement. The folk ballad-like theme of the second movement variations proves capable of wide-ranging treatment and the scherzo is a type in which Spohr specialised - slightly spectral as if showing the obverse side of Mendelssohn's "fairy" scherzos. Here, we are closer to the Brothers Grimm, the ugly sisters or wicked stepmothers rather than the elfin fairyland of Spohr's friend and fellow-composer. The quirky finale features catchy rhythms and an ingenious two-part theme with one element on the cello and the other on the violin. The cello's share also turns into the start of the second subject as things come to lively conclusion with a move into the tonic major.
Piano Trio No.5 in G minor, Op. 142, dates from October, 1849, at a time when Spohr's enthusiasm for the March, 1848, German revolution was turning to disappointment as the forces of repression began to regain control. In contrast to the joyful atmosphere radiating from his C major String Sextet composed in March-April 1848, "at the time of the glorious people's revolution", as Spohr himself entered in his catalogue of works, the trio is more disturbed. March-like rhythms predominate in the urgent opening movement, where both of the main themes are built from the same material. In contrast, nobility sings out in the Adagio while the Scherzo mixes a somewhat sinister quirkiness with the playfulness of its Trio section. The finale is even more unsettled than the first movement, especially in the central development and, despite a more optimistic second subject which follows a bridge passage built on an ominous ostinato in the strings, the G minor tonality returns at the end when the music subsides on a note of resigned acceptance.
The Hartley Piano Trio
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