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ClassicsOnline Home » SPOHR, L.: String Quartets (Complete), Vol. 15 - Nos. 19 and 22 (Moscow Philharmonic Concertino String Quartet, New Budapest Quartet)
Spohr was a prolific quartet composer, his body of work forming an important collection. His Quartet No 19 is the fourth of his Quatuors brillants, chamber concertos designed to allow the first violinist, Spohr himself, to flaunt his virtuoso credentials. He ensures, however, that flourish is balanced by expressive themes and songful warmth. Quartet No 22 is one of his greatest compositions, notable not only for its broad, sweeping, even sensual themes tinged with pathos, but for the masterful use of counterpoint and virtuoso elements within a magnificently unified whole. The American Record Guide wrote of the Concertino String Quartet’s recording of Nos 9 and 17: ‘Their tuning, intonation, technique, ensemble, sensitivity, and depth of expression result in total musicality.’ (8.225315)
Louis Spohr (1784–1859)
String Quartet No. 19 in A major, Op. 68, Quatuor brillant No. 4 • String Quartet No. 22 in D minor, Op. 74, No. 3
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 String Quartet No. 36, Op. 157. 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 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 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 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 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 brillant, 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 Rode’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 28 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 virtuoso polarities in his musical nature.
Professor Clive Brown
Clive Brown is an internationally recognised authority on the music of Spohr and the author of Louis Spohr: A Critical Biography. Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Spohr had been Kapellmeister in Kassel for nearly two years when he composed the Quartet No. 19 in A major, Op. 68, his fourth quatuor brillant, which is dated on the autograph score ‘October 1823’ and it follows the three-movement layout of his earlier essays in this form. Although these works may be considered the chamber music equivalent of the violin concerto, in one particular they resemble their ‘true’ quartet counterparts. So far Spohr had adhered to the standard first movement sonata form of his classical quartet heritage with a repeated exposition, a formula which, in the quatuor brillant, produced a long stretch of music with its dominating solo violin part twice over as well as its repetition in the recapitulation.
The problem was thus created of a danger of textural monotony and in Op. 68 Spohr addressed this matter though he avoided the obvious path of eliminating the exposition repeat, something he had already done in a couple of his recent regular quartets. Instead, he adopted the plan of some of his violin concertos by starting the recapitulation with the second subject. In the first movement, Allegro moderato, which offers warm and expansive themes punctuated by solo passage work, he also gives the three accompanying parts their own almost exclusive motif, introduced by the cello to herald the arrival of the second subject which it then accompanies before being picked up briefly by the soloist at the close of the exposition. Spohr finally writes a quiet and lyrical coda which allows the soloist right at the end again to appropriate the motif which has so far mainly been the property of the trio of accompanists.
The Larghetto, in F major, is a typical Spohr 6/8 lyrical slow movement and extremely beautiful as the solo violin sings out the main melody on the G string. The central section turns to D minor with bravura passages which introduce a note of high pathos before the return of the opening material. With the finale, Rondo: Allegretto, we find Spohr at his catchiest as the movement attractively rounds off a lovable work, rich in melody which offers plenty of enjoyment for modern listeners.
Spohr’s six quatuors brillants have sometimes been criticized for lacking the musical interplay of the true quartet but whereas Spohr designed his works in the latter style for performance in chamber music concerts alongside the central classical repertoire, his brillant quartets were composed for a more public arena. Spohr took them with him on concert tours and played them in programmes which also featured vocal and orchestral items. For instance, during his visit to London in 1820 he played the quatuor brillant in E major, Op. 43, at a Philharmonic Society concert where it shared the billing with such works as Haydn’s Symphony No. 95 in C minor, Ferdinand Ries’s Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, a Mozart piano concerto, overtures by Beethoven and Cherubini and three arias.
In his Violin School, Spohr explained that such quartets ‘are intended to give the solo player an opportunity to display his virtuosity in small circles’. He also demanded a distinction between the style of performance of a brillant and a standard quartet, stating that his comments on playing a concerto should also apply to these (apart from reducing the violin tone in a smaller room) whereas in regular quartets, the first violin should not dominate exclusively; a solo player should put aside his own particular performance style and accommodate himself to the character of the music with the aim of putting across the idea and spirit of the composition.
With the three quartets of Op. 74 we find Spohr’s ‘true’ quartet technique at its finest. They date from 1826 when Spohr had returned to chamber music with his String Quintet in B minor, Op. 69, after his first years in Kassel had been devoted mainly to large-scale works: the operas Jessonda and Der Berggeist, the oratorio Die letzten Dinge, incidental music to Macbeth, his Violin Concerto No. 11, Op. 70, and his first Double Quartet, Op. 65 (for string octet). As a set Op. 74 is among Spohr’s outstanding achievements in the quartet medium. By this stage he had a settled ensemble at his winter quartet parties consisting of himself (first violin), Adolf Wiele (second violin), who was the leader of his Kassel orchestra, Spohr’s brother, Ferdinand (viola) and Nicolaus Hasemann (cello). Apart from being an outstanding cellist, Hasemann was also a virtuoso on the trombone.
Quartet No. 22 in D minor, Op. 74, No. 3, which was composed in December 1826, stakes a claim to be among Spohr’s three best quartets (alongside No. 7, Op. 29, No. 1, and No. 15, Op. 58, No. 1, both in E flat major) as each movement attains a consistently high level of quality. The opening Allegro, with its 3/2 time signature, features fiery restlessness with broad, sweeping, even sensual themes tinged with pathos and the second subject which spans 24 bars is a particularly romantic inspiration. The bridge between the two main themes at first seems devoted to violin virtuosity with its descending triplet passage but it proves to have important thematic significance in its own right as it is echoed on the other instruments and plays a major role in the development. This is an excellent example of how Spohr integrates these virtuoso elements into the general musical argument.
A hymn-like Adagio in A major in Spohr’s noblest vein is not without a few moments of minor drama though the basic calm mood remains in the forefront. In contrast, the ghostly D minor Scherzo: Vivace takes us on a kaleidoscopic journey while the major key Trio with a time change to 6/4 retains the eerie atmosphere as well as allowing the cello to share the limelight.
The D major finale, Presto, launched with an octave leap, can truly be said to crown the whole work in a nonstop display of contrapuntal complexity which can also accommodate an operatic-style second subject. The exposition appears to be reaching its conclusion when the first violin ends a sequence of passage work with a conventional cadential trill but it then continues this trill over ten bars as the cello takes up the opening theme to herald a spell of development leading to the repeat of the exposition. The development proper intensifies the contrapuntal combinations which now include the ‘operatic aria’ second subject while a passage of Bach-like figuration also comes to the fore. After a full recapitulation, the quartet closes on a note of quiet restraint.
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