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8.550688 - SPOHR: Clarinet Concertos Nos. 1 and 3 / Potpourri, Op. 80

Louis Spohr (1784 - 1859)

Clarinet Concerto No.1 in C Minor, Op. 26
Clarinet Concerto No.3 in F Minor, WoO 19
Potpourri for clarinet and orchestra, Op. 80


Louis Spohr was born in Brunswick in 1784, the son of a doctor and descendant of a family that had for some generations been firmly established in the cure of souls or of bodies. The family moved to Seesen in 1786 and here Spohr began to develop his innate musical interests, with violin lessons and attempts at composition. From 1797 he was able to pursue a sounder course of general and musical education in Brunswick, where, in 1799, he was accepted as a violinist in the court orchestra, with the encouragement of the reigning duke, a nephew of Frederick the Great. It was through this patron that violin lessons were arranged with Franz Eck, a musician from the old Mannheim orchestra, whom Spohr accompanied on a concert-tour to Russia. His return to Brunswick, now with the first of his violin concertos published with a dedication to the Duke, led to promotion and a successful concert-tour to other German cities. The result of this was his appointment in 1805 as Konzertmeister at Gotha, where he met and married Dorette Scheidler, daughter of a singer and herself a harpist and pianist. In Gotha he was able to continue his activities as both composer and virtuoso violinist, while securing a good standard of performance from the orchestra in a court that paid proper attention to music. There followed further compositions, some for violin and harp to be played by himself and his wife, and concert-tours that spread his reputation further afield. It was as a result of success in Vienna that he was invited in 1813 to join the Theater an der Wien as director of the orchestra. The appointment now gave him a chance to broaden his activities as a composer, with the possibility of the staging of any opera he might write, although the first result of this, his Faust, was rejected, to be given its first performance in Prague in 1816.

Spohr's position in Vienna proving unsatisfactory, in spite of his success with the public, he arranged for the termination of his contract and after a year spent in Italy moved in 1817 to Frankfurt as Kapellmeister at the opera, where his Faust was staged. In 1820 he resigned, undertaking engagements in London, Paris and Dresden and in 1822 accepting the position of Kapellmeister in Kassel. This appointment did not put an end to his concert-tours, which he was able to resume during the course of the next thirty-five years. Nevertheless his association with Kassel was to continue, for better or worse, until his death in 1859. During this period he consolidated his reputation abroad and in German- speaking countries as one of the leading composers of the time, a position that, by the time of his death, he had begun to lose. Spohr represented a link with the old classical tradition and fashions were now changing. While much of his violin music, the duets, concertos and the Violinschule, remain of importance for students of the instrument, and compositions like the Nonetare still heard, much of Spohr's work is only now undergoing a slow process of revival.

Spohr's concertos for the clarinet are in a measure exceptions to this general neglect of his work. They come at an important stage in the development of the instrument and its repertoire and thus hold a special position among players. The first of them, the Clarinet Concerto in C minor, Opus 26, was written in the autumn of 1808 for the clarinettist Johann Simon Hermstedt in response to a commission from his employer, Prince G√ľnther Friedrich Carl of Schwarzburg-Sondershausen. The clarinet part necessitated various changes in the instrument itself, which Hermstedt was able to secure, ensuring a proper response throughout its register. The dramatic opening Adagio includes the germ of the first subject of the following Allegro, taken up by the clarinet and embroidered with some brilliance. The same thematic material is the source of the lyrical second subject, interwoven with the orchestra as the movement unfolds. Although Weber claimed ignorance of the instrument before writing this concerto, he nevertheless demonstrates a sure handling of the special qualities of its contrasting registers and its effectiveness in arpeggios, rapid scales and ornamentation, as well as in sustained operatic melody. The second movement, an Adagio, starts with a clarinet melody of moving simplicity and potential dramatic content. The serenity of the Adagio gives way to a final Rondo, its principal theme announced by the clarinet. This lively movement provides a brilliant conclusion to a concerto that makes some demands on the dexterity and endurance of a performer, demands that Hermstedt seems to have met with distinction.

In 1810 Hermstedt asked Spohr for a second concerto, to be played at the Frankenhausen Festival, where it was received with enthusiasm, and in 1821 proposed a third work for his use, the Clarinet Concerto in F minor, to be played at a festival in Alexisbad. The new concerto opens with a dramatic orchestral exposition, followed by a display of agility from the soloist in music that constantly suggests the operatic in its lyricism, replete with the feeling that lies behind much of the writing in the violin concertos. Here again Spohr captures the characteristic tone of the solo instrument in music admirably suited to its peculiar propensities. The orchestra introduces the second movement Adagio, soon followed by the solo clarinet in a slow-moving melody of pent emotion, the principal theme again operatic in mood, as it is gradually developed. The tranquillity of its conclusion is followed an elegant and dramatic finale, its thematic material and its treatment moving from the tender to the histrionic. Seven years later Hermstedt asked for a fourth concerto, to be played at a festival at Nordhausen, as it was with now predictable success.

Spohr's Potpourri, Opus 80, was written for Hermstedt on the occasion of the Frankenhausen Festival of 1811. Here the composer uses themes from Peter von Winter's opera Das unterbrochene Opferfest, a work that enjoyed some contemporary popularity after its first performance in Vienna in 1796, although Spohr entertained reservations about Winter in other respects. Horns introduce the opening Larghetto, immediately followed by the clarinet, in material that is a reminder of the historical position Winter occupies between the opera of Mozart and that of Weber and German romanticism. Here relatively simple themes are embellished by the clarinet, which announces the classical Singspiel melody that opens the Allegro, before proceeding to embellish and vary it, in a movement that again exploits the virtuosity of the soloist.

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