About this Recording
8.570528 - SPOHR, L.: Violin Concertos Nos. 6, 8, 11 (Lamsma, Sinfonia Finlandia, P. Gallois)
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Louis Spohr (1784–1859)
Violin Concertos, Nos. 6, 8 and 11


Louis Spohr was accepted during his lifetime as one of the most important composers of early German Romanticism whose compositions covered all the major genres of that era. He was born on 5 April 1784 in Brunswick, where he became a teenage member of the court orchestra and developed into the leading German violinist of his day after achieving overnight fame with a concert in Leipzig in December 1804. He then held major directorships in Gotha (1805–12), Vienna (1813–15), Frankfurt (1817–19) and finally Kassel (1822–57) where he died on 22 October 1859. Spohr also found time for numerous concert tours including St Petersburg, Italy, England (six times) and Paris. As a conductor he had much to do with establishing the regular use of the baton, giving pioneering performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Missa Solemnis, Schumann’s Spring Symphony and Wagner’s Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser. He was also a renowned teacher, training some two hundred violinists, conductors and composers.

Spohr’s music is a mixture of the Romantic (harmony, instrumental texture) and the Classical (formal design) and this latter side of his musical personality played a part in his later fall from popularity, as it must have appeared old-fashioned to those brought up on the heady sounds of Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss.

Spohr first established his reputation as a composer with his violin concertos. After his 1804 Leipzig concert, the influential critic Friedrich Rochlitz said of Spohr’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 2: “His concertos rank with the finest existing and, in particular, we know of no violin concerto which can take precedence over that in D minor, whether as regards conception, soul and charm or also in respect of precision and thoroughness”.

Spohr’s concertos were influenced by two major sources: the French violin school of Viotti, Kreutzer and Rode, and the Viennese classical school of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. In his concertos, Spohr attempted to merge the violinistic approach of the former with the higher seriousness, perfection of form and developmental skills of the latter. In four of his eighteen violin concertos he made use of a slow introduction, adapted Viotti’s and Rode’s style of passagework to include more variety and greater chromaticism, and generally followed the French style of rondo finale with its dotted or alla polacca rhythms. From Vienna he took the integrated thematic workmanship, the increased emphasis upon development, and the greater seriousness and scope of the slow movements which, with Viotti, were generally simple “arias”. One model available from both the French and Viennese schools he completely rejected, though—the improvised cadenza. Spohr believed that such “showing off” pandered to the worst instincts of soloists and devalued the composition. Only two of his violin concertos include cadenzas; both are written out and relatively short.

The three concertos recorded here offer a fascinating mixture of tradition and innovation. For instance, the first movement of Concerto No. 6 in G minor, Op. 28, composed in the winter of 1808–09 and first performed by Spohr in a concert at Sondershausen on 9 January 1809, follows text-book concerto form, with an opening introduction for orchestra alone which features both main themes. These are taken up by the soloist and one in double stops is expanded in the development section before the regular recapitulation. In contrast, both slow movement and finale explore new territory. As far back as Bonporti and Vivaldi composers had occasionally used recitatives in their slow movements but Spohr goes further here by using the operatic model of a recitative and aria. The dramatic recitative, Andante, in G minor, leads to the beautiful B flat major Adagio aria with a pizzicato accompaniment in the cellos. For his finale Spohr turns to the tonic major and the exotic national colours of Spain in this Rondo alla spagnola, Tempo di polacca. The composer explained in his memoirs that the melodies were genuinely Spanish ones which he noted down from a Spanish soldier of the Napoleonic army who was billeted with him after the battle of Jena. The soldier sang to the guitar and, in order to give the movement a more Spanish character, Spohr copied the sound of the instrument into the orchestral part, using pizzicato and col legno (played with the wood of the bow). Right at the end Spohr springs a surprise; instead of virtuoso fireworks, there is a gentle and graceful conclusion.

The operatic model for the slow movement of the Sixth Concerto is expanded to take over Concerto No. 8 in A minor, Op. 47, completely. Spohr wrote the work between 23 April and 4 May 1816 while on holiday in Switzerland ahead of a concert tour of Italy. He designed the concerto especially to appeal to the operatic taste of Italian audiences and based it on the formula of a vocal scena consisting of recitative (first movement), aria (Adagio), and cabaletta (finale), hence the title of Violin Concerto in modo di scena cantante or the more-often used German version Violin-Concert in Form einer Gesangszene. The opening march rhythm in the orchestra alternates with the recitative of the soloist which eventually prevails and leads to the F major Adagio. A more lively section intervenes before the “aria” is resumed and is linked to the powerful Allegro moderato finale by more recitative. At the point where a singer would insert a cadenza Spohr writes a brief one followed by a typical operatic “applause” ending. The composer had been told that the standard of Italian orchestras was poor so deliberately kept the orchestral writing sparse and undemanding. In the event, the première at Milan’s La Scala opera house on 27 September 1816 surprised Spohr for he found the orchestra under Alessandro Rolla to be excellent though later performances he gave in Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples proved that this was an exception.

The Eighth Concerto soon became an established repertory work played by all the leading violinists and in our own day is the only Spohr violin concerto still occasionally to be heard in live concerts. Spohr himself, who always referred to the work as “meiner Gesangszene”, played it on his London début at the New Argyll Rooms in Regent Street on 6 March 1820. Its through-composed shape and rejection of the conventional concerto form became a model for many later composers such as de Bériot, Saint-Säens, Vieuxtemps, Goetz and Glazunov. When Max Bruch was agonising over whether his famous G minor work could properly be called a concerto, the great violinist Joseph Joachim reassured him by pointing out that the classic status of Spohr’s “Gesangszene” gave him the authority to use the title.

In September 1825 Spohr’s latest opera Der Berggeist was being staged in Leipzig in the presence of the composer. Remembering that it was here 21 years earlier that his solo career took off, Spohr decided to write a new violin concerto to mark the occasion and so arose the Concerto No. 11 in G major, Op. 70, which he performed in the Leipzig Gewandhaus on 19 September 1825. The opening movement deviates from the standard type as exemplified in the Sixth Concerto in a number of ways. There is a slow introduction which opens with three rising notes in the bass and contains hints of the movement’s main thematic material then, after the orchestra bursts in with the main Allegro vivace theme, the soloist takes over after only seven bars. The second subject seems to be at a slower tempo but this is an aural illusion as the lyrical and expressive melody is written in longer note values. It is preceded by the return of the three rising notes from the slow introduction and it is this second subject which also begins the recapitulation so that the rising phrase in the bass from the very start of the concerto marks this major structural point. The Adagio in E minor is exquisitely beautiful with a second main theme of near Mozartian lyricism which moves into E major when it returns later in the movement. The Allegretto rondo finale opens with a country dance which tests the soloist from the outset as it features extensive double stops. A broader melody provides the main contrast, allowing the solo violin to display its singing qualities interspersed with virtuoso passagework before the music reaches a powerful conclusion.

For many years the Eleventh Concerto was ranked with the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth as one of Spohr’s four masterpieces in the genre (the Tenth is an early work published out of sequence) but it gradually dropped out of the repertory as the twentieth century progressed and the composer’s reputation declined. Such a fine concerto is surely due for a comeback.

Keith Warsop
Chairman, Spohr Society of Great Britain

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