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8.223251 - SPOHR, L.: String Quartets (Complete), Vol. 1 - Nos. 27 and 28 (New Budapest Quartet)
Louis Spohr (1784–1859)
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 thirty-sixth string quartet, WoO. 42. 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 so-called “Quatuor brilliant” 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 brilliant, 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 brilliant”, 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 emphasised 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 brilliant, 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 Roda’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 twenty-eight 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 virtuosic polarities in his musical nature.
Quartet No. 27 in D Minor Op. 84 No. 1 • Quartet No. 28 in A Flat Major Op. 84 No. 2
The two quartets presented here provide excellent examples of Spohr’s handling of what he considered to be “true” quartet style. They come from a set of three written in the winter of 1831–32, just after he had spent about a year on his Violinschule. Beethoven, Weber and Schubert had died in recent years, and Mendelssohn and Schumann had not yet established their reputations, so many people in Germany considered Spohr to be the greatest living composer. He had won great success with the opera Jessonda (1823), the oratorio The Last Judgment (1826) and his Second and Third Symphonies (1820 and 1828), and he was still at the height of his powers. Under his direction the opera house in Kassel had become one of the finest in Germany, though the political upheavals following the revolutions of 1830 brought its greatest days to an end.
Besides his worries about the future of the opera house, Spohr also suffered some bereavements in 1831, particularly the loss of his brother Ferdinand, who had joined him in Kassel in 1822 and had been the viola player in his quartet. This quartet, formed with the help of leading members of the Kassel orchestra, met regularly at Spohr’s house or at the homes of other chamber music enthusiasts.
Quartet No. 27 in D minor, Op. 84 No. 1, opens with a sombre, powerful first movement, which may have been influenced by the recent difficulties and sorrows. The first violin has some passages of great difficulty, as so often with Spohr, but they are part of a well-planned structure in which all the instruments make a meaningful contribution. In the middle of the movement, tension builds up and a stormy climax is reached. The following Larghetto, with its air of peaceful contemplation, provides a welcome contrast after the drama of the previous movement. We return to the minor key for the serious-minded Scherzo, with its stamping rhythm. The Trio section provides its contrast with a gentle rocking movement and conversational passage-work shared by the instruments. The cheerful Finale has a brisk open-air character and is held together by a three-note figure.
Here the doubts and sorrow of the first movement are answered by an expression of optimism and good humour. Quartet No. 28 in A-flat major, Op. 84 No. 2, is a placid, mellow work but not without depth of feeling in places. The themes of the first movement have a relaxed, lyrical flow out of which the more animated passages emerge with a natural grace. The slow movement has an air of quiet meditation, which has its counterparts in some of Spohr’s choral music. We hear Spohr at his most vigorous in the fine Scherzo, but the quartet’s predominant mood of gentle lyricism returns in the melodious Trio. The main theme of the Rondo finale maintains something of this mood, but later there are some brilliant passages for the first violin. The contrasting theme shows the wit and high spirits that are also found in the familiar Nonet. The work ends on a serene note.
Both quartets are regular in construction and show the influence of classical models but also contain expressive ideas that look forward to Schumann and Brahms. Musicians today often do not realise how much these two composers were able to learn from Spohr and how important he was in the musical life of the time. Schumann did have critical opinions about some of Spohr’s later works, but he also praised his achievements, particularly with Jessonda. Brahms was also very fond of Jessonda, and it is very likely that the example of Spohr’s String Sextet (1848) encouraged him to write his own sextet not so long afterwards. Both he and Schumann avoided in their quartets the violinistic passagework typical of Spohr, but many features of his melody, harmony and string texture are echoed in their works.
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