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8.223259 - SPOHR, L.: String Quartets (Complete), Vol. 9 - Nos. 20 and 21 (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.
Spohr’s oratorio, The Last Judgement, had been astoundingly successful at the Rhenish Music Festival at Düsseldorf in May of 1826—so much so that the festival had to be extended for an entire day so that The Last Judgement could be repeated for the enthusiastic public. Spohr was now an acknowledged master of vocal music as well as instrumental but, during the latter half of the same year, in the rosy afterflow of all the adulation and prestige accorded him as a result of the success of The Last Judgement, he returned to the world of chamber music, composing a number of chamber works, including the Op. 74 string quartets, in Kassel. It may appear to have been an abrupt volte face for Spohr to follow the universal proclamations of The Last Judgement with the personal intimacy of chamber music, especially as he had not written any for at least three years. But Spohr had been successful with chamber music long before The Last Judgement: chamber music was familiar territory to him as a composer and he was intimate with it as a performer as a number of his previous chamber works, especially the string quartets, were written with concertante roles to feature his own virtuosity as one of the leading violinists of his day. In April, 1826, he composed the String Quintet in B minor, Op. 69 and began the Six Songs for Voice and Piano, Op. 72 in July, putting them aside in August to complete the first quartet of Op. 74. The first movement of this quartet is an Allegro vivace with a terse motive from its dramatic first theme pervading the entire movement, even forming part of the accompaniment to the lyrical second subject. The development plays off rhythmic elements of both the exposition’s main themes while an orthodox recapitulation sets up the coda for more exploration of the movement’s opening motive. The movement, unexpectedly and almost humorously, ends rather quietly. The Larghetto con moto, in the key of F major, is 92 bars of gentle song after which the Scherzo returns to the key of A minor with a rising theme punctuated at occasional intervals with reminiscences of the terse motive which began the first movement. The trio of the Scherzo shifts to the tonic major key. The final Rondo is an Allegretto in A major, the main theme of which is a perky affair with a dotted rhythm to liven it up. The episodes provide considerable musical interest of their own and the coda, rather than building to a climax, stretches out and relaxes comfortably in the tonic major key—Spohr at his most amiable!
Spohr completed the remaining songs of Op. 72 in September and October of 1826 and returned to the composition of string quartets the following month when he completed the second quartet in the Op. 74 trilogy. Right from the opening measures, it is evident that Op. 74 No. 2 is a more light-hearted affair than its predecessor although it is not without its moments of pathos, especially in the fine second movement Larghetto. The opening theme of the first movement is a triple-meter derivation of the jovial tune from the final Rondo (Allegretto) of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 11, Op. 22—which is also in B-flat major. Beethoven’s Op. 22 was composed 26 years before Spohr’s Op. 74 string quartets but it was obviously a work Spohr admired as the spirit of its rondo theme pervades the entire first movement of Op. 74 No. 2. The second theme grows out of the first, providing a high degree of thematic integration in a movement which is a virtual textbook example of sonata form. The soulful Larghetto is in G minor and plumbs depths of feeling which no other single movement of Op. 74 attains. What compositional innovation there is evident in this quartet is perhaps due to the fact that there is no scherzo or minuet: the third movement is a pleasant Allegretto con variazioni (based on an original theme by Spohr) and the finale Allegretto begins, unusually, in B-flat minor and minor key sonorities prevail throughout most of the movement. However, near the end, it shifts to the tonic major and briefly attempts to cadence in a more boisterous fashion. Apparently, however, Spohr was in a reflective mood in the autumn of 1826: in the brief ensuing coda, the movement ends quietly and meditatively—albeit remaining in the tonic major.
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