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8.223258 - SPOHR, L.: String Quartets (Complete), Vol. 8 - Nos. 13 and 14 (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 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 Opus 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 Opus 50 in 1787, and in 1801 Beethoven published his six Opus 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 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 Opus 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 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 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, Opus 11 (1804), by the much admired French violinist Pierre Rode, which, though not published with the title “Quatour 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, Opus 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, Opus 30, was similarly designated on the autograph score despite its four movements, and Opus 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 recognized the essential difference between the Solo-Quartett and the “true” quartet, and in his twenty0eight 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. 13 in E minor, Op. 45 No. 2 (1818)
While Spohr was Music Director at the Frankfurt Opera he was asked to institute the city’s first chamber music concerts and it was for these that he wrote his three string quartets Opus 45 during the summer of 1818 (shortly after abandoning work on a proposed opera, Der schwarze Jäger, when he heard that Weber was working on Der Freischütz, a version of the same plot). This background is reflected in the quartets – they are not works technically suitable for amateur home music-making circles but big public compositions in which Spohr strove to display his talent at its best. More so than in his earlier quartets, the second violin, viola and cello get an effective share of the material, especially the cello. Then, not only was Spohr spurred to pay attention to the thematic working-out and contrapuntal combinations as exemplified in the works of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven which he also programmed in his concerts but he also looked to introduce dramatic strokes which would make an effect with an audience. For instance, in the E minor quartet, the development section is mainly devoted to a statement of the main theme in E major (a theme typical of Spohr in which regular ingredients of his style are called on such as ornaments and pedal points with dissonant chord above); instead, the recapitulation is really the development. Then, the slow movement has a lyrical melody in 2/4 time accompanied by a spiky, staccato motif in 12/16, an idea which looks ahead to the movement in Spohr’s Fourth Symphony involving three separate tempi which appear simultaneously. In the minuet, the repeat is not the conventional one but a varied return involving imitation and decorated with triplet and semi-quaver passagework. The Trio, which gives prominence to the viola, features a Slav-sounding melody which is combined with the minuet material in the coda. New material appears in the development section of the last movement and, the last dramatic stroke of all, the main theme gently unwinds at the end to provide a quiet conclusion. This quartet long remained a favourite with the composer and as late as 1855 he performed it in Hanover. The quartet made a special impression on one of Spohr’s idols, Cherubini, during the former’s visit to Paris in 1821. Spohr tells in his memoirs how he had revered the Italian master since boyhood and wished to gain Cherubini’s approval for his quartets, but when he played Opus 45 No. 1 and was about to move on to the E minor, Cherubini stopped him and asked to hear No. 1 again, saying “Your music, and indeed the form and style of this kind of music, is yet so foreign to me that I cannot find myself immediately at home with it, nor follow it properly; I would therefore much prefer that you repeated the quartet you have just played”. Spohr says that he later discovered that Cherubini had heard, at most, a quartet of Haydn’s and was unfamiliar with those of Mozart and Beethoven. It seems difficult to believe this assertion and perhaps was merely polite modesty that Cherubini’s part. After the third performance of No.1, which Cherubini now praised, Spohr moved on to the E minor which he also had to repeat. Then Cherubini “spoke of it with a more decisive praise, and said of the slow movement: ‘It is the finest I ever heard.’”
Quartet No. 14 in F minor, Op. 45 No. 3 (1818)
In his quartets published in sets of three (Op. 29, 45, 58, 74, 82 and 84) Spohr tried to offer strongly differentiated works and one extra string to his bow in this respect was to give one of the three a stronger affinity with the Quatuor brillant, with a prominent virtuoso part for the first violin (for instance, Opus 58, No. 2, on Marco Polo 8.223256). This is the case with Opus 45 No. 3, but there are also other ways Spohr gives an individual identity to the Opus 45 quartets. In No. 1 there is a lengthy, fine development in the classical tradition, while in No. 2, as we have seen, the real development takes place in the recapitulation. Now, in the F minor, Spohr abolishes the development entirely and builds the unity of his first movement through strong contrasts in each section. It opens with a slow introduction, the first to one of Spohr’s quartets (although the fugal finale of Opus 15 No.2, on Marco Polo 8.223253 has one) which projects an atmosphere of sorrow. Gradually the clouds lift and a more hopeful theme in A-flat major begins to take shape. This proves to be the kernel of the flowing first subject while the second theme is also lyrical, “floating like a butter fly from harmony to harmony”, in the words of Hans Glenewinkel in his standard monograph on Spohr’s string chamber music. In between come difficult, virtuoso semi-quaver passages for the first violin. There is no exposition repeat; instead the slow introduction reappears, its tone intensified by dramatic pizzicato effects, the, after the recapitulation, hints of it overshadow the coda. The hymn-like Adagio maintains its rapt mood throughout with the A-flat section of the slow introduction influencing the secondary material. The Scherzo is another of Spohr’s “fantasy” pieces in which, as in Opus 45 No. 1, he reflects the world of E.T.A. Hoffmann, Jean-Paul or the Grimms, as if a ghostly witches’ dance is taking place on the misty top of the Blocksberg, while the whirring Trio intensifies the mood (perhaps the fact that Spohr had just been involved in the German première of his opera Faust in Frankfurt might have rubbed off on this movement). The Finale starts like a Quatuor brillant with a semi-quaver opening theme for the first violin in which the other players get to share. Then comes on of Spohr’s catchiest tunes, which develops into a duet for violin and cello. Knowing a good tune when he invented one, Spohr calls for the exposition repeat so that we hear it three times, including the recapitulation when the cello is allowed to take centre stage, but we want it to come round again and Spohr does not disappoint us. With things heading for a seemingly conventional fortissimo conclusion the music suddenly changes tack and in sails the tune, immediately slowing down to bring the movement gently to rest. A poetic close to the set of which the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung reported: “Three new magnificent quartets by Spohr received great applause”.
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