Movement 1: Adagio – Allegro
Movement 2: Adagio
Movement 3: Rondo: Vivace
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.’
from notes by Keith Warsop © 2005
Chairman, Spohr Society of Great Britain