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Hyperion Records

CDA67509 - Spohr: Clarinet Concertos Nos 1 & 2
CDA67509

Recording details: May 2004
Örebro Konserthuset, Örebro, Sweden
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Phil Rowlands
Release date: April 2005
DISCID: 790E9C08
Total duration: 61 minutes 45 seconds

'An outstanding disc, excellently recorded' (Gramophone)

'An outstanding disc, excellently recorded' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Michael Collins … has all the requisite showmanship and panache for Spohr's gymnastic extravagances, [he] colours his tone imaginatively and phrases the lyrical melodies with real finesse' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Michael Collins is one of Britain's Top Guns these days, and he gives a stirring, brilliant performance of these concertos and the interesting and delicious Potpourri and Variations. The orchestra is excellent, with Mr O'Neill providing sympathetic support. Hyperion's sound is some of the best I've heard, rich and deep' (American Record Guide)

'This is excellent material for the aspiring clarinettist or the adventurous collector, and this release also serves as an ideal introduction to this long and unjustly neglected composer' (Fanfare, USA)

Clarinet Concertos Nos 1 & 2
Adagio – Allegro  [10'39]
Adagio  [3'20]
Rondo: Vivace  [5'53]
Allegro  [11'22]
Adagio  [5'36]

Louis Spohr was one of the most significant personalities in German music in the first half of the nineteenth century, equally outstanding as a composer, violinist, conductor, teacher and organizer who was considered a leading pioneer of early Romanticism. In fact he ranked during his lifetime as a member of the pantheon of great composers, his music played and loved by thousands. Gradually he slipped from this Olympian height, but in more recent decades he has enjoyed something of a revival, mainly fuelled by his delightful chamber music including the Nonet and the Octet (on Hyperion CDA66699) and the Double Quartets (on Hyperion Dyad CDD22014) and also by his numerous works for clarinet.

Spohr, who was born in Brunswick on 5 April 1784 and died in Kassel on 22 October 1859, was a twenty-year-old violin virtuoso when he shot to fame after a sensational concert in Leipzig on 10 December 1804. The following year the young composer was offered the post of Music Director at the enlightened court of Gotha and, at twenty-one, he became the youngest incumbent in Germany of such a position. His Gotha employers were sufficiently worried by his youth that they publicly declared him to be a few years older—perhaps a necessary strategy when deference to age and experience was the norm. It was at Gotha in the autumn of 1808 that Spohr met the clarinet virtuoso Johann Simon Hermstedt, and the two men hit it off straight away. Spohr immediately began work on the Concerto in C minor. Hermstedt was so taken by the work that—rather than insisting on the composer modifying some of his more outlandish, and unplayable, demands—he adapted and expanded his instrument to suit the music, thus bringing about important developments in the range and flexibility of the clarinet, expanding it from five keys to thirteen.

In the summer of 1810 Germany’s first genuine music festival was staged in Frankenhausen and Spohr was selected as conductor, a remarkable accolade as he was by far the youngest contender for the position. Hermstedt’s appetite for new Spohr works was insatiable and he proposed that he should unveil a second clarinet concerto at the festival. Accordingly, Spohr got to work during the spring and the Concerto in E flat major was first performed by Hermstedt at Frankenhausen on 22 July 1810.

The British clarinettist Michael Collins is one of the most sought-after and successful wind players of his generation. At the age of sixteen he won the woodwind prize in the first BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition, and at twenty-two made his American debut at Carnegie Hall, New York. Since then he has performed as a soloist with many of the world’s major orchestras and most renowned conductors. This is his first solo recording for Hyperion.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Louis Spohr was one of the most significant personalities in German music in the first half of the nineteenth century, equally outstanding as a composer, violinist, conductor, teacher and organizer who was considered a leading pioneer of early Romanticism. In fact he ranked during his lifetime as a member of the pantheon of great composers, his music played and loved by thousands. Gradually he slipped from this Olympian height, but in more recent decades he has enjoyed something of a revival, mainly fuelled by his delightful chamber music including the Nonet and the Octet (on Hyperion CDA66699) and the Double Quartets (on Hyperion Dyad CDD22014) and also by his numerous works for clarinet.

Spohr, who was born in Brunswick on 5 April 1784 and died in Kassel on 22 October 1859, was a twenty-year-old violin virtuoso when he shot to fame after a sensational concert in Leipzig on 10 December 1804. The following year the young composer was offered the post of Music Director at the enlightened court of Gotha and, at twenty-one, he became the youngest incumbent in Germany of such a position. His Gotha employers were sufficiently worried by his youth that they publicly declared him to be a few years older – perhaps a necessary strategy when deference to age and experience was the norm.

It was at Gotha in the autumn of 1808 that Spohr met the clarinet virtuoso Johann Simon Hermstedt (1778–1846), the wind band director at the nearby court of Sondershausen. Hermstedt’s ducal employer despatched his clarinettist to Gotha to commission a concerto from Spohr and the two men hit it off straight away. Both worshipped Mozart, both were Freemasons like their hero, and Hermstedt had originally trained as a violinist, so they had a lot in common. The friendship was probably cemented more firmly at one of their first concerts together when they played Mozart’s clarinet quintet with Spohr on first violin. Their fruitful partnership puts them in the company of Mozart and Anton Stadler, Weber and Heinrich Baermann and Brahms and Richard Mühlfeld, three great composers and the clarinettists who inspired them to produce some of their finest works. So it was with Spohr and Hermstedt.

Spohr immediately began work on the Concerto in C minor and took it to Sondershausen in January 1809 to go through it with Hermstedt. At the time, while Spohr was familiar with the range of the clarinet, he knew little about its strengths and weaknesses and planned to adjust his score in the light of Hermstedt’s advice. But the clarinettist liked the concerto as it was and assured Spohr that he would adapt and expand his instrument to suit the music. And so he did, thus bringing about important developments in the range and flexibility of the clarinet, expanding it from five keys to thirteen. Hermstedt’s modifications and alterations were detailed in a preface to the first publication of the concerto as opus 26 in 1812.

At the time he wrote the concerto, Spohr was already an experienced composer of works in this form. Though only twenty-four, he had under his belt eight violin concertos, one for two violins, one for violin and cello and two for violin and harp. Although the C minor Clarinet Concerto is broadly in the classical mould with two fast movements framing a central slow one, it differs from the standard model in a number of respects. Firstly, the work opens with a slow introduction which contains the main motif of the first movement; secondly, when the Allegro begins, the soloist enters after only eight bars. The long orchestral opening tutti familiar from the great concertos of Mozart and Beethoven is dispensed with; instead the slow introduction may be said to replace it in a highly compressed manner. The second subject is also built from the core motif but when what is usually known as the ‘development’ is reached a new, completely contrasting and lyrical theme appears.

The Adagio is a short, beautiful intermezzo, delicately supported only by violins and cello; even the violas and basses sit out this movement. In contrast, the final Rondo is mainly lively with fiendish humour involving much activity from the orchestra’s wind section though, instead of final fireworks, the key of C minor returns at the end for a gentle and romantic fade out which recalls the more serious mood of the Adagio opening of the whole work.

Hermstedt gave the first performance of the C minor Concerto at Sondershausen on 16 June 1809 and then took it on tour. It was an enormous success and cemented Hermstedt’s reputation as the leading clarinet virtuoso of the day, challenged only by Weber’s favourite, Baermann. Following Hermstedt’s concerts in Leipzig on 23 and 28 November 1809, the leading German musical journal, Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, published a rave review. After praising Hermstedt’s brilliance, the critic continued: ‘As no composition whatever existed in which this excellent artist could display all the superiority of his playing, Herr Concertmeister Spohr of Gotha has written one for him; and, setting aside this special purpose, it belongs to the most spirited and beautiful music which this justly famous master has ever written.’

Naturally, Hermstedt was keen for more and so in June 1809 Spohr worked on the Variations in B flat major on a theme from his opera Alruna. This grand Romantic opera, whose subtitle was ‘The Owl-Queen’, had been accepted by Goethe for production in Weimar but during rehearsals Spohr came to the conclusion that it was a dramatic failure and managed to get it withdrawn. Nevertheless, he still thought highly of the music and drew upon it more than once in the future. The theme he chose for this set of variations is the opera’s seventh number, the duet ‘Euer Liebreiz, eure Schönheit’. The theme’s entry is preceded by a slow introduction, and then Hermstedt is put through his paces. Appropriately enough the piece received its premiere in Weimar on 15 January 1810.

In the summer of 1810 Germany’s first genuine music festival was staged in Frankenhausen and Spohr was selected as conductor, a remarkable accolade as he was by far the youngest contender for the position. Hermstedt’s appetite for new Spohr works was insatiable and he proposed that he should unveil a second clarinet concerto at the festival. Accordingly, Spohr got to work during the spring and the Concerto in E flat major was first performed by Hermstedt at Frankenhausen on 22 July 1810. He had brought his own specialist wind players from Sondershausen to reinforce the festival orchestra so Spohr took full advantage of their presence and ability with much interplay for them with their clarinettist director.

For the E flat major Concerto Spohr follows tradition with a full-scale opening tutti though, after a call to attention from the orchestra in the first few bars, he slyly lets the soloist respond briefly before the tutti gets fully under way. As befits the original occasion there is much festive writing for trumpets and drums while a march rhythm dominates the second subject which first appears in the unexpected key of D flat major before reaching its destination of B flat major. Again there is a new theme in the ‘development’ section which provides a contrasting romantic lyrical quality to the surrounding festive pomp and, as in all of Spohr’s four clarinet concertos as well as most of his others, no space is found for a cadenza. Spohr thought that cadenzas pandered to the worst side of solo instrumentalists and he generally shunned them.

For the Adagio, Spohr chose one of his favourite keys, A flat major, which he had also opted for in the C minor Concerto. Here, though, we have a full-scale movement which beautifully exploits the clarinet’s rich low chalumeau register as well as including a wonderfully powerful contrasting section in C minor where the soloist executes dramatic runs and leaps. Also, the orchestral wind, especially the flute and bassoon, step forward to share the limelight briefly with the clarinet. The finale (‘Alla Polacca’ – in the then fashionable polonaise style) begins with solo timpani answered by the horns before the clarinet introduces the main theme; this opening timpani–horn exchange goes on to play a prominent part in the movement. Hermstedt was especially famous for his playing in the upper register so Spohr gives him chance to show off by ascending stratospherically to C altissimo, a real test for a performer even today.

The Frankenhausen festival was such a success that another was planned for 1811, also under Spohr’s direction. For this one he was invited to compose a symphony (his first, in E flat major, Op 20) so that Hermstedt, who naturally put in a plea for another new clarinet piece, had to be satisfied with a ten-minute work. Spohr composed the Potpourri in F major in the spring of 1811 and it was first played at Frankenhausen on 11 July that year.

The Potpourri was no mere medley; rather its two chosen themes were used as the basis for virtuoso variations. Spohr selected his two numbers from a then highly popular opera, Das unterbrochene Opferfest (‘The interrupted sacrificial feast’), by the Mannheim composer Peter von Winter (1754–1825), and produced what is in effect a three-movement concertino. The opening section, Larghetto, works with Myrha’s aria ‘Ich war, wenn ich erwachte’ (No 9 in the opera) and the prominent horns at the start have been lifted from the opera along with the theme. Next comes an Allegro on a vocal quartet (the opera’s No 8) ‘Kind, willst du ruhig schlafen’, then finally an Allegretto version of the same theme.

Despite the praise heaped on Spohr’s clarinet compositions, delays in the publication of all except the first concerto, as well as the tremendous technical difficulties they posed, prevented them from claiming an immediate place in the repertoire. The second concerto did not appear in print until 1822 as opus 57; the Potpourri in 1830 as opus 80; and the Variations not until 1890, long after Spohr’s death.

So, in a concentrated period of just over two years, Spohr composed for Hermstedt the four works recorded here. More were to follow over the next twenty-six years, two further concertos (F minor, WoO19, 1821; and E minor, WoO20, 1828), a Fantasia and Variations on a theme by Danzi, a Notturno for Hermstedt’s own wind band featuring the clarinet as a solo instrument, a set of songs and an aria, both with a part for an obbligato clarinet. These ten works with clarinet solo inspired by Hermstedt stand proudly among Spohr’s most inventive and attractive compositions.

Keith Warsop © 2005
Chairman, Spohr Society of Great Britain


Other albums in this series
'Spohr: Clarinet Concertos Nos 3 & 4' (CDA67561)
Spohr: Clarinet Concertos Nos 3 & 4
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