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Briefly Noted: Spohr String Quartets

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L. Spohr, String Quartets, Vol. 17, Concertino String Quartet

(released on July 8, 2014)
Naxos 8.225352 | 56'25"

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Vol. 16

(released on May 27, 2014)
Naxos 8.225983 | 57'19"

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C. Brown, Louis Spohr: A Critical Biography
The music of many composers who achieved great fame in their lives has faded into obscurity. Louis Spohr (1784-1859) is one such example, a German composer whose music was almost completely forgotten and is still not played with any frequency. Clive Brown, a professor at the University of Leeds, wrote the definitive biography, published in the 200th anniversary year of Spohr's birth and developed from his doctoral dissertation on the composer. Spohr was a violinist by training, and among his rather prolific output is a cycle of thirty-six complete string quartets, written over the course of a long life -- not to mention four "double quartets" (a genre invented by Albrechtsberger, the string equivalent of a Venetian-style cori spezzati work, but with strings instead of singers), one traditional octet, and seven string quintets.

Naxos has finished a complete recording of the Spohr quartets, plus assorted single movements, on its Marco Polo label, a series begun by the New Budapest Quartet in the 1990s, with one volume by the Dima Quartet, and now finished by the Concertino Quartet, made up of members of the Moscow Philharmonic. (Informative booklet notes were contributed by Professor Brown, with additional essays by Keith Warsop, Chairman of the Spohr Society of Great Britain.) Volumes 16 and 17 have just been released this year, and while these recordings remain the only ones of Spohr's quartets, they are mainly of musicological interest. Most of Vol. 16 was recorded a few years ago, but the first track, the opening movement of op. 82/1, was recorded just last year for some reason and does not represent the group's best playing. The same problems are noticeable on the final track, the Variations (op. 8), although the sound of the first violin is improved on the other tracks.

The quality of playing is generally stronger on the pieces in Vol. 17, also recorded last year, with a particularly lovely slow movement in op. 30, for example. None of the quartets on these two discs grabbed me so strongly as to demand multiple listenings, especially in the two quatuors brillants, showpieces for Spohr's first violin that were something like mini-concertos, rather than equal-voiced quartets, although some movements of the other quartets also seem conceived for a primarius who is not necessarily inter pares. Perhaps these pieces would work better with a great virtuoso, someone on Spohr's level, seated first violin. Until then, the determined listener can at least learn something about a forgotten composer's music, a remarkable achievement by any standard.

1 comment:

MUSE said...

Naxos issued the complete Haydn Symphonies using six different orchestras in different venues and under various conductors. I guess it's tough sticking with one set of artists or maybe it's more fun doing things this way. Anyway, the Spohr Quartets are very pleasant and easy-going indeed. Among fiddle players, he is best-known for his concerto number 8. He did live to age 75 but not nearly as long as Roman Totenberg.