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Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, March 2010

Unusual for an active performing violin virtuoso of his era, the German born Ludwig (Louis) Spohr (1784–1859) wrote much music other than violin concertos, string quartets, and chamber works featuring the violin. His output includes nine completed symphonies, concertos for clarinet, oratorios, a mass, numerous songs, and several operas, of which Faust and Jessonda still retain some currency. Spohr’s music is fairly typical for its time, which is to say it does its best to pretend that Beethoven never happened, while embracing the early Romantic leanings of Reicha, Weber, and Onslow.

Two years before Mendelssohn produced his famous string Octet in 1825, Spohr published the first of four works he would call “double quartets.” One needn’t expend too much time or energy fretting over the designation. Upon eventually encountering the Mendelssohn, Spohr wrote, “Mendelssohn’s popular Octet belongs to quite another kind of art in which the two quartets do not concert and interchange in double choir with each other but all eight instruments work together.” Yet, according to Keith Warsop’s insert note, by the time Spohr came to write his second Double Quartet in E? Major in 1827, he “integrates the players into a more evenly balanced whole.” In other words, he co-opts Mendelssohn’s approach. Moreover, sources that discuss these four Spohr works tend to exchange the terms “double quartet” and “octet” fairly freely. The most significant feature that sets Spohr’s double quartets apart from Mendelssohn’s octet is not compositional technique; rather, it’s that the former are works of a virtuoso violinist and highly talented composer, while the latter is a work of consummate genius, which, of its type, has never been surpassed.

Thus, as the singing of others pales beside Mendelssohn’s brilliant voice, it is difficult to listen to these Spohr double quartets and not find them wanting. The music is not without interest, its melodies are engaging, and its harmonic excursions sometimes adventurous; but it doesn’t fire the imagination, stir the emotions, or linger in the memory. The spell it casts lives in the moment, but it’s not lasting. Such is the charm of these works that they summon recollections of Haydn’s robust, earthy humor and amiability more than they anticipate Mendelssohn’s gossamer sprites and faeries. The Allegro molto finale of Spohr’s D-Minor Double Quartet No. 1 is the one movement that comes closest to foreshadowing Mendelssohn’s Octet, with its semiquaver runs and melodic line in the treble propelled forward by drumming measured tremolandos in the lower voices.

The Forde Ensemble is another of those “flexible” British musical establishments, like the Nash Ensemble, that expands and shrinks in complement depending on the work being performed. The difference is that the group is made up exclusively of string instruments, and its players are drawn from among the principals of London’s major orchestras. Their main performance venue is the Forde Abbey, a 900-year-old former Cistercian monastery in Somerset. The current CD, however, was recorded at St. Mark’s Church, Purley, in Surrey.

If the Forde Ensemble has made other recordings prior to this one, I do not find them listed. Nor are they the first to present these works on record. The Double Quartet in D-Minor in particular has found advocates, including a 1968 RCA recording with Heifetz, Primrose, and Piatigorsky; a period-instrument version with L’Archibudelli and the Smithsonian Chamber Players on Sony’s Vivarte Series; and a performance on Hyperion by that trusted standby, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble.

Of the three, the last named affords the closest comparison to the Forde Ensemble in terms of performance practice and style. The ASMF, now available in Hyperion’s budget Dyad series containing all four of Spohr’s double quartets, is quite good, if a bit overcooked, which is sometimes the ASMF’s wont. For those who already have the Hyperion, this new Naxos disc may be superfluous to the collector for whom Spohr doesn’t merit that much shelf space. Personally, however, I prefer the brighter sound on the new CD, and I find more to my liking the Forde Ensemble’s stylish playing. So, both a solid recommendation and an eager anticipation of the second volume containing Spohr’s two remaining double quartets.

Carl Bauman
American Record Guide, January 2010

Spohr is a good…The playing of these double quartets by the British Ensemble is enthusiastic and enjoyable. The recording is good, and it is nice to have both of these works on one disc.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, November 2009

I find this first volume attractive and, with excellent playing and very good recording, well worth its modest price.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2009

After the death of Mozart, Louis Spohr became the most prolific composer of the early 19th century adding a deluge of works to opera houses, concert halls and chamber music salons. That enormous output included four works for double quartet, a rare sight in today’s monetary world. Spohr did not use them throughout as an octet, but as two quartets who share the work, only coming together at key moments. It works amazingly well, but I guess it is more fascinating when heard in live concerts where you can also see the interplay. On disc it does rather sound like a work for a string chamber orchestra. Spohr was one of the great violinists of his day and knew instinctively how to manipulate strings to weave his web of sound. He was often accused of spreading his inspiration over too many works, but both are quite resplendent with melodic invention. Drama, fast flowing scherzos, relatively short slow movements and mercurial finales. It was a well tried formula, that works admirably here. They present many technical hurdles, particularly in the fast movements where left hands have to be extremely nimble. The ideal sampling point would be track 2, the scherzo of the First, and one wonders if Mendelssohn ever heard it, as it is typical of the music yet to come from the young composer. This is the first of two discs that will contain all four works and played by the Ensemble from the UK. Many of the members are familiar in major UK orchestras and ensembles, and group taking its name from the legendary recording venue at Forde Abbey. There are passing moments were intonation is not squeaky clean, but the performance captures the music’s charm.

Blair Sanderson, September 2009

The ensemble’s approach is light and delicate in No. 1, while a warmer feeling is achieved in No. 2, so there is a distinctive character to each performance, and the album as a whole has considerable emotional range. The recorded sound is adequately resonant, though not so much as would detract from the musicians’ vibrant string tones and finely detailed ornamentation.

Brian Reinhart
MusicWeb International, July 2009

Spohr’s Double String Quartets…are each delights in and of themselves.

It should be noted at the outset that the different name Spohr chose highlights a key difference between his work and that of his more famous contemporary. Spohr himself had to explain, “Mendelssohn’s Octet belongs to quite another kind of art,” writing (in remarks reproduced in the liner notes) that while Mendelssohn asked the eight players to perform as one group, he preferred to have them work as two distinct, facing quartets “in double choir with each other.” The first of Spohr’s double quartets predates Mendelssohn’s Octet by two years, and the Octet in turn predates the Second Double Quartet by two years. There is no evidence that Spohr had heard the younger man’s masterwork while he was writing the second piece, though he clearly had by the time he wrote the fourth and final double quartet twenty years later…if you are curious to sample Louis Spohr’s chamber music or if you just want to hear what these Double Quartets might sound like, do not wait. This first volume is quite wonderful indeed. The Second Double Quartet, in particular, is a gem - a laid-back, gentle piece of very good humour. It is not particularly innovative - the dance movement, placed second, is a genteel minuet in the traditional style - but the musical language is a winning combination of good cheer and graceful echoes of the dance. The third movement, “Larghetto,” seems at times like a slowed-down minuet itself, with its elegant stop-start musical steps (one might also think of the opening seconds of Mozart’s “Linz” Symphony). The finale too features some infectious rhythms, which propel the music forward even when the melodic material is not at its most compelling. The first movement, and by far the longest, is probably also the best - it floats along like a dream…The Forde Ensemble, based in Forde Abbey, Dorset, is an off-and-on performing group which was founded by a record producer with players from the ranks of the major London orchestras; it appears at summer concerts in the Abbey. I am happy to report that the group is excellent, the players are well-matched, and the ensemble’s sound is a pleasure for the ears…the sonics excellently capture Louis Spohr’s intended set-up of two string quartets facing one another, the first in the left channel and second in the right…Spohr’s chamber music is always enjoyable and often superb; the Second Double Quartet would be a great backdrop for a sunny morning. A wonderful bargain and a good advertisement for the music of Louis Spohr. His fans already know that he wrote a huge quantity of vastly underrated chamber music; newcomers can now very cheaply let themselves in on the secret.

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