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Hyperion Records

CDA67616 - Spohr: Symphonies Nos 1 & 2
CDA67616
Recording details: September 2006
Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland
Produced by Ben Connellan
Engineered by Michael Rast
Release date: September 2007
Total duration: 73 minutes 37 seconds

'Howard Shelley and his skilled orchestra are attentive to the music's lyrical charm and colourful wind scoring' (Daily Telegraph)

'The playing is generous in energy and rhythmic impetus, not to mention elegant, and the lines are beautifully wrought. The performances make as good a case for Spohr’s music as do the annotations' (Fanfare, USA)

'The Grand Concert Overture (1819) here receives its first recording. It is sonorous, spirited and beguiling … an enjoyable entrée into the symphonies recorded here as well as signalling the fine performances and sound to be found on this Hyperion release. These works show both ‘muscle’ and lyricism … Spohr’s construction and scoring is of a high order; the music trips lightly and curvaceously. The Second Symphony (1820) begins in dramatic fashion, the ‘introduction’ proving to be integral to the movement as a whole, its unhurried demeanour embracing dignity and lightness. The movements that follow once again contain ideas that make immediate attraction – a warm-toned Larghetto, a scurrying scherzo and a mercurial finale … There are ten symphonies by Spohr. Maybe Hyperion intends to record the cyclethe label has previously championed Spohr's chamber music)? It would be welcome … His music is genuinely enjoyable and not without novelty and Howard Shelley and this fine orchestra certainly have its measure' (ClassicalSource.com)

'The first two symphonies … are well worth an airing, and their finales in particular have a great deal of life … Howard Shelley's direction is highly effective' (Manchester Evening News)

'Tout en souplesse, la lecture de Shelley supplante forcément celle d'Alfred Walter, par ses tempos plus amples et plus contrastés. En espérant que d'autres chefs donneront bientôt à ces musiques plus des rythmes et de relief, on trouvera ici une honnête version d'attente donc, accompagnée d'un superbe Caspar David Friedrich en couverture et d'un excellent texte de présentation' (Diapason)

Symphonies Nos 1 & 2
Adagio – Allegro  [12'43]
Scherzo: Allegro  [8'45]
Allegro  [12'09]
Larghetto  [6'16]
Scherzo: Presto  [4'43]
Finale: Vivace  [7'31]

In his lifetime, Spohr ranked as one of the great composers; one of the most significant personalities in German music in the first half of the nineteenth century; a leading pioneer of early Romanticism; his music played and loved by thousands. Although it declined sharply after his death, his reputation has enjoyed something of a revival in recent decades, mainly due to his delightful chamber music (much of it recorded on Hyperion).

However, Spohr’s symphonies were his most celebrated works. They were staples of the concert platform (particularly in London) along with those of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Hyperion is delighted to present this disc of Symphonies Nos 1 and 2, with 4 and 5 to follow next year. The indefatigable Howard Shelley (himself approaching his 100th CD recording) conducts the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana in stylish, committed performances which demonstrate all the originality and individuality which contemporary listeners found in Spohr’s music. Also included is a first recording of his Grand Concert Overture in F major—an enchanting and utterly unfamiliar work.


Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Until the emergence of Mendelssohn and Schumann, the only symphonies to receive regular performances—beyond those of the three Viennese giants Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven—were those by Louis Spohr. In fact Spohr’s symphonies, as well as his overtures, remained staples of the concert repertoire until the general decline of his reputation towards the end of the nineteenth century. His generally acknowledged symphonic masterpiece, the fourth symphony, still cropped up occasionally in concerts well into the 1920s, but even this work soon joined the others in obscurity.

Who was Louis Spohr, whose orchestral compositions were once ranked alongside those of the greatest masters? Spohr was born in Brunswick on 5 April 1784 and died in Kassel on 22 October 1859, and he 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 his lifetime he ranked as one 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 such as the Nonet and the Octet (on Hyperion CDA66699), the Double Quartets (on Hyperion Dyad CDD22014), and his works for clarinet which have been taken up by many of the world’s finest exponents of that instrument (including Michael Collins, on Hyperion CDA67509).

Spohr composed nine published symphonies between 1811 and 1850, four of which bear programmatic titles. A tenth was composed in 1857, but this had to wait until 1998 for its first public performance and remained in manuscript until it was published in 2006.

Spohr 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 of such a position in the whole of Germany. So worried were his Gotha employers at his youth that they gave out that he was a few years older—a perhaps necessary strategy when deference to age and experience was the norm.

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. This festival was such a success that another was planned for 1811, also under Spohr’s direction. For this second festival he was invited to compose a symphony, and during March and April 1811 he worked on his Symphony No 1 in E flat major Op 20. The premiere was in Gotha on 25 April 1811. It was also played on 20 May in a Leipzig Gewandhaus programme before its performance at the Frankenhausen Festival on 10 July. The composer later stated in his memoirs: ‘Though it had been usual for me to lose, after a time, all taste for my first essay in a new branch of composition, this symphony was an exception to the rule for it has pleased me even in later years.’ Spohr’s satisfaction with the symphony was widely echoed. E T A Hoffmann wrote in the influential Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung that ‘the composer whose first symphony is written in such a manner as the present one raises the greatest and most beautiful hopes’, while the same journal said of the Leipzig performance: ‘For many years we have scarcely heard a new work of this kind which possesses so much novelty and originality without singularity and affectation; so much richness and science without artifice and bombast.’

Anyone hearing Spohr’s symphony for the first time will immediately recognize the influence of his great symphonic predecessors. The Adagio introduction, with its powerful opening and upward-rushing string passages, along with the relaxed 3/4 main theme of the Allegro, point right away to Mozart’s Symphony No 39, K543, in the same key.

However, Spohr balances the influence of his hero with many examples of his burgeoning Romantic individuality, such as the harmonic richness of the introduction and the march-like second subject, a definite import from Spohr’s concerto style. In a dramatic stroke this theme’s return in the recapitulation is pianissimo and in the unexpected key of C major; it then reaches C minor before its repeat, forte, in the tonic of E flat major. The development section is characterized by its fugal treatment of the main theme, driven by three repeated notes, while the trumpet and drum fanfares of the tuttis serve as a reminder of Haydn’s London symphonies.

The Larghetto con moto—like the slow movement to Mozart’s K543 in A flat major—is in other respects closer to Haydn as it features one of those ‘nursery-rhyme’ tunes of which Haydn was so fond. It opens attractively with the cellos presenting the tune accompanied by pizzicato basses before the violins take over the lead. A contrasting idea is eventually combined with the main theme and the material is enveloped by delicate filigree decoration in the later stages. The brusque opening of the scherzo shows that Spohr was familiar with Beethoven’s style, but again he stamps his own harmonic mark on this movement. Metrical changes from 3/4 to 2/4 are also characteristic of Spohr, while the C minor trio is dominated by triplets and a descending chromatic bass.

A light-hearted theme starts the Allegretto finale but the music opens out with colourful harmonies as the second subject is fashioned from part of the opening tune. After a contrapuntal development there is a poetic lead-back to the reprise in which the main theme is this time presented on the wind instruments. Spohr avoids a lengthy coda, preferring a brief winding-up of the movement, and in his review Hoffmann found this to be rather abrupt though he preferred it to many contemporary works which ‘seem almost incapable of reaching their conclusion for they pile ending upon ending which is fatiguing for the listener’.

By the time Spohr came to write his Grand Concert Overture in F major in the summer of 1819 his career had passed through some important stages. He was orchestral leader at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien from 1813 to 1815, he made an artistic tour of Italy in 1816–17, and later in 1817 he accepted the post of opera conductor in Frankfurt. But Spohr’s high artistic aims clashed with the down-market and penny-pinching policy of the theatre’s chief director and he resigned in September 1819 with the knowledge that he had under his belt a lucrative contract with London’s Philharmonic Society for the following season.

On 29 November 1819, shortly after his resignation, Spohr’s concert overture was played at the Leipzig Gewandhaus and then it was packed ready for the trip to London where part of his contract with the Philharmonic Society was that he should present them with a new, unpublished orchestral work. The overture was played through in London on 3 April 1820 at the Society’s trial night, at which possible works for future programmes were evaluated. However, there was no available spot for it in the 1820 season so its London premiere was delayed until 21 March 1821. Today Spohr’s still-unpublished autograph score is in the British Library’s Philharmonic Society archive.

The overture’s Adagio molto introduction in the tonic minor includes the germ which provides the main motif of the Allegro vivace. The work is notable for the recapitulation starting with the second subject, something not uncommon in Spohr’s violin concertos but rarer in his symphonic pieces, and it inhabits the same soundworld as the forthcoming second symphony, a work inspired by and written for the Philharmonic Society orchestra.

Spohr made his London debut at the New Argyll Rooms in Regent Street at the opening Philharmonic Society concert of the season, on 6 March 1820, when he played his Violin Concerto No 8, the once-famous ‘Gesangsszene’ (recorded on Helios CDH55157). He was so impressed by the quality of the orchestra that he determined there and then to write a symphony specially for it. Before the end of the same month his Symphony No 2 in D minor, Op 49, was complete, although the parts were not copied in time to perform it at the above-mentioned trial night on 3 April. Instead, Spohr’s first symphony was heard, and so impressed the directors that it was included in the programme planned for the following week on 10 April.

Somehow Spohr was able to persuade the directors to substitute his new symphony. A significant event in the history of conducting came about on the day of the concert. In his memoirs, written more than a quarter of a century later, Spohr’s memory betrayed him when he claimed to have used a baton to conduct the concert, the first time this was done in London. The usual procedure in England at the time was to have a so-called conductor seated at a piano, with the full score in front of him, playing along with the orchestra while the first violinist (the leader or concertmaster) gave the signal to begin.

Spohr’s letters home in 1820 give the accurate story of what actually happened on 10 April. At the rehearsal in the morning he did indeed produce his baton and conducted in the modern way. However, the directors were unhappy at breaking with tradition, so at the evening concert Spohr was persuaded to discard his baton and lead the violins in the old manner. He agreed but when the concert started he put his violin under his arm and used his violin bow to conduct as if it was a baton.

An amazed reporter wrote: ‘In directing, Mr. Spohr did not follow the method which has been observed hitherto by Cramer, Salomon, Viotti, Weichsel and others; that is, merely to give the tempo and then make sure that it is kept to, and for the rest of the time to play with the orchestra as leader; on the contrary he played only occasionally and for the rest of the time he held his violin under his arm and gave the beat with motions of his bow, also he gave a sign whenever there was an entry of a new section to show where it should begin … and also the “shh” when there was a piano.’ Also, the Morning Chronicle noted that: ‘Mr. Spohr led the band in a very novel and superior manner.’

In his hazy recollections of this time, Spohr stated that he brought about the revolution that saw the introduction of modern conducting to England, but in fact it was a gradual process as more leaders adopted Spohr’s method of directing the orchestra with the bow; it was not until around 1832 that the change-over to baton-conducting was widespread.

By the time of the second symphony Spohr had moved on stylistically. The direct influences to be found in the first have gone, except for the Haydnesque jokey second theme in the finale. In the first movement Spohr steers clear of the conventional slow introduction; instead, he opts for a fast introduction in the main Allegro tempo of the movement before the arrival of the first-subject proper on the strings, a passionate theme tinged with melancholy and typical of Spohr. When the second subject is reached the music gives the impression of being at a slower tempo, brought about by Spohr’s use of longer note values for the theme. However, the rhythmic accompaniment in the strings reminds us that this is still Allegro. The final part of this second subject is extracted from the symphony’s introduction. This introductory material and the first subject are combined imaginatively in the development which shows Spohr’s mastery of harmony and modulation at its best. The introduction returns as if heading for a D minor recapitulation, but there is a neat sidestep to the first subject, pianissimo, to start the reprise in the major.

The Larghetto in B flat major contrasts a gently lyrical and richly harmonized melody with a powerful G minor section featuring prominent trumpet and drum outbursts which eventually lead to a grand climax. Then the B flat music returns to wind things down to a peaceful conclusion. There follows a highly individual Presto scherzo in D minor with little trace of Beethoven’s influence. Spohr keeps the dynamics subdued for some time before a sudden flare-up in the major releases the tension. The ländler-like trio in D major gains extra variety from its presentation. In both sections the theme is first heard on winds and timpani only while the repeats are restricted to the strings. When the trio returns after the scherzo has been reprised, the full orchestra joins together to present the theme. There is an impressive coda which, in miniature, even looks ahead to Bruckner’s scherzos.

Although Spohr keeps the D major Vivace finale light in tone, he avoids eighteenth-century stereotypes. After a call to attention, a ‘travelling’ theme is launched which points forward to such finales as those in the D major symphonies of Brahms and Dvorvák. Haydn pops up in the second subject which elicits more humour in the development and there is a short but vigorous coda.

Spohr’s first symphony was also fitted into the Philharmonic Society concerts, being featured on 19 June, while he had earlier repeated his second symphony at his benefit concert on 8 June. From that point on these two symphonies remained staples of the London repertoire until the 1870s, and even though Spohr composed seven more published symphonies, this early pair proved more popular with English audiences than those more Romantic and influential later works. In 1842 the leading London critic J W Davison wrote that the second symphony was ‘beyond comparison the most perfect orchestral composition of Spohr’.

Keith Warsop © 2007
Chairman, Spohr Society of Great Britain


Other albums in this series
'Spohr: Symphonies Nos 4 & 5' (CDA67622)
Spohr: Symphonies Nos 4 & 5
'Spohr: Symphonies Nos 3 & 6' (CDA67788)
Spohr: Symphonies Nos 3 & 6
'Spohr: Symphonies Nos 8 & 10' (CDA67802)
Spohr: Symphonies Nos 8 & 10
'Spohr: Symphonies Nos 7 & 9' (CDA67939)
Spohr: Symphonies Nos 7 & 9
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