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Hyperion Records

CDA67561 - Spohr: Clarinet Concertos Nos 3 & 4
Sunday Stroll by Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885)
Museum Carolino Augusteum, Salzburg / Interfoto / Bridgeman Art Library, London
Recording details: June 2006
Örebro Konserthuset, Örebro, Sweden
Produced by John H West
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: May 2008
Total duration: 52 minutes 29 seconds


'This oustanding disc is the counterpart of Michael Collins's coupling of Spohr's first two Clarinet Concertos with the same forces. It is thanks to Collins's artistry that relatively prosaic ideas are transformed, with magical echo effects, subtle pointing of rhythm to make the music sparkle in shaping of phrases that is magnetic … an exceptionally attractive disc' (Gramophone)

'Michael Collins … repeats the success of his disc of Nos 1 and 2 with elegantly phrased melodies, immaculate passagework and wondurously even trills. The Swedish Chamber Orchestra and Robin O'Neill again provide alert support, and the recording is outstanding, with a pleasant sense of intimacy embracing wind, strings and soloist' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Michael Collins brings off the more spectacular passages with stylish relish. He's even better in the long, lyrical lines of the slow movement—a lovely Adagio that has real expressive intensity here, thanks to the quiet eloquence and subtle shading of Collins and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra in this performance' (International Record Review)

'Collins completes his recordings of these delightful concertos with the contrasting works presented here … Collins dazzles like a bel canto diva in the pyrotechnic leaps, trills and runs, while he lavishes his rich tone, phenomenal breath control and deeply satisfying expressive insights on the E minor' (The Sunday Times)

Clarinet Concertos Nos 3 & 4
Allegro moderato  [10'23]
Adagio  [9'18]
Allegro vivace  [10'43]
Larghetto  [7'07]

This disc is a long-awaited sequel to Hyperion’s disc of Spohr’s Clarinet Concertos Nos 1 & 2, recorded by the same forces. 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 his first clarinet concerto. 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. Of the four concertos Spohr wrote for Hermstedt, the Third is the most overtly virtuosic, with a fiery restless energy supporting grand, sweeping themes of real distinction. The Fourth ranks among Spohr’s finest compositions.

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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. During his lifetime he ranked as a member of the pantheon of the 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), but also by his four concertos and other works for clarinet which have been taken up by many of the world’s finest exponents of that instrument.

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 who shot to fame after receiving rapturous reviews for a 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 of such a position in the whole of Germany. So worried were his Gotha employers by his youth that they publicly declared him to be a few years older—a perhaps necessary stratagem 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 Günther Friedrich Carl, Prince of Schwarzburg-Sondershausen. Hermstedt’s princely 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 his Clarinet Concerto No 1 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. Hermstedt gave the first performance of the 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.

Naturally, Hermstedt was keen for more so in 1810 Spohr wrote his Clarinet Concerto No 2 in E flat major, Op 57, as well as two short concert pieces, the Variations in B flat major, WoO15, on a theme from his opera Alruna (1809) and the Potpourri in F major, Op 80 (1811), on two themes from Peter von Winter’s then popular opera Das unterbrochene Opferfest. As a return favour, Hermstedt played in the orchestra in November 1811 when Spohr’s opera Der Zweikampf mit der Geliebten was first staged and the composer featured his clarinettist in a special obbligato aria ‘Ich bin allein’, which he later transferred to his 1813 Faust.

Spohr next met up with Hermstedt in Vienna, where the composer had accepted a post as orchestral leader at the Theater an der Wien, which he held from 1813 to 1815. Victory over the French resulting in Napoleon’s exile to Elba led to allied diplomats descending on the Hapsburg capital for the Congress of Vienna, and musicians saw their chance to profit from the occasion. Beethoven, Weber and Spohr were among those who produced patriotic cantatas while Hermstedt arrived in autumn 1814 to join in the music-making. The clarinettist was much taken with a recent Potpourri of Spohr’s for violin and harp and beseeched the composer for a clarinet arrangement. Spohr obliged with the Fantasie and Variations on a theme of Danzi in B flat major Op 81, usually heard in the version for clarinet and string quartet.

Spohr left Vienna in March 1815 to resume the life of a touring violin virtuoso though he kept in touch with Hermstedt, composing a Notturno in C major, Op 34, for the Sondershausen wind band. After a long-awaited visit to Italy Spohr became director of the Frankfurt opera (1817–19), before he was back on the road with trips to London and Paris. He, his wife and their three daughters eventually settled in Gandersheim, the home town of Spohr’s parents, and it was there in May 1821 that Hermstedt turned up with an urgent request.

The directors of the baths at the spa town of Alexisbad wanted Spohr to give a concert during the forthcoming summer season and Hermstedt pressed Spohr for another concerto which he promised to play at that event. The composer complied and his Clarinet Concerto No 3 in F minor WoO19 was given its premiere by Hermstedt at Alexisbad on 27 July 1821. However, the evening proved something of a disaster as far as the audience were concerned. Spohr recollected that a tremendous thunderstorm along with torrential rain erupted and the noise drowned out any attempt at music. Eventually the storm subsided and the concert began but the late start meant it was midnight before it ended. Then the audience discovered that the storm had flooded the surrounding valley, trapping them for the night. Food and shelter were in short supply and many guests had to spend an uncomfortable night sleeping on straw in the baths before they were able to make their escape at daybreak.

The third concerto is the most overtly virtuosic of the four with a fiery, restless energy supporting grand, sweeping themes of real distinction. The music best matches what we know of Hermstedt’s musical personality: a staggering technique and a fearless disregard of even the most severe difficulties. Some contemporaries hinted that his playing lacked finesse but all acknowledged the sheer excitement generated by his performances.

The first movement, Allegro moderato, follows conventional concerto form though Spohr builds his second subject around a trilling motif extracted from the passionate F minor opening tutti. The solo clarinet announces its presence with a long held note in a crescendo from piano to forte. After a few bars of passagework there is a brief intervention by the orchestra, before the clarinet has the held note again but this time entering forte with a diminuendo to piano. It is strange that in this work, as well as in its successor, Spohr adhered to the standard first movement concerto form, for in his violin concertos dating from this period he had moved away from such traditional treatment. Perhaps he was influenced by Hermstedt who may have wanted to ‘make ’em wait’ for his solo entry.

The concerto’s beautiful Adagio in D flat major has echoes of the slow movements of Mozart’s concerto and quintet for clarinet without ever actually quoting them; perhaps a little in-joke for Hermstedt who loved these two works of Mozart’s above all others.

The material of the Vivace non troppo F major finale has a distinct Alpine touch to it; an idiom which Spohr came to know during stays in Vienna and Switzerland. His fascination led him to turn to this mode in three finales—the Notturno, Op 34 (1815) written for Hermstedt, the C major string quartet, Op 45 No 1 (1818), and this concerto. A waltz-like accompaniment introduces a contrasting section while Hermstedt was given plenty of opportunity to display his ability in tonguing staccato passagework.

At the close of 1821 Spohr’s career reached a major turning point with his appointment as Kapellmeister at the court of Kassel and he remained there for the rest of his life. It was in Kassel that he composed the Clarinet Concerto No 4 in E minor WoO20, sketched in August 1828 and orchestrated in January 1829. It ranks among Spohr’s finest compositions and received its premiere in Hermstedt’s hands on 12 June 1829 during the Nordhausen Musical Festival where the composer demonstrated his continuing love for Mozart by taking the viola part in a performance of the latter’s Clarinet Trio, K498.

The fourth concerto, the only one Spohr composed for the A clarinet, opens with a sombre Romantic-sounding theme (Allegro vivace) which is contrasted with a more serene second subject, but this relaxed atmosphere is interrupted by powerful though brief orchestral outbursts. The Larghetto is reflective and melancholy, with operatic touches coming from declamatory passages and dramatic arpeggios.

The finale, a Rondo al espagnol, appears on the surface to be a joyous, good-humoured movement but there is an underlying feeling of sadness emphasized by the E minor tonality that dominates proceedings. The opening theme of the work is echoed in the arpeggio figuration at the close. Spohr had earlier used a Spanish finale in his sixth violin concerto, composed in the winter of 1808–9 after hearing a Spanish soldier quartered on him in Gotha play his native melodies on a guitar, and he turned to this Spanish inspiration for a number of further works including a string quartet and an opera as well as this clarinet concerto.

It will be be noticed that in neither of these two clarinet concertos is space found for a cadenza as the composer thought that cadenzas pandered to the worst side of solo instrumentalists and he generally shunned them.

Both the third and fourth concertos remained unpublished and unknown because Hermstedt retained possession of the manuscripts until his death in 1846. Spohr wrote in his memoirs that he knew nothing of the fate of either work and it was not until the centenary year of the composer’s birth in 1884 that clarinet and piano arrangements were printed. At the same time manuscript performing material also became available on hire but this was not widely publicized, and it has been left to our own times to rediscover these fine concertos. Their revival was helped by the discovery in 1960 of Spohr’s autograph score of the fourth concerto, leading to a scholarly edition in 1976. Sadly, the third concerto still languishes only in manuscript copies, but interest in Spohr’s other concertos has led clarinettists to seek this one out too.

Spohr composed only one more work for Hermstedt. In the late summer of 1837 the clarinettist wrote on behalf of Princess Mathilde of Schwarzburg-Sondershausen, daughter-in-law of the prince, to commission a set of soprano songs with clarinet obbligato, the Sechs deutsche Lieder, Op 103. Hermstedt, who was approaching the end of his career, included two of the songs in his final concert in August 1841. He had served his composer well for Hermstedt inspired an overall total of ten works with clarinet solo which stand as a group among Spohr’s most inventive and attractive compositions.

Keith Warsop © 2008

Other albums in this series
'Spohr: Clarinet Concertos Nos 1 & 2' (CDA67509)
Spohr: Clarinet Concertos Nos 1 & 2
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