LOUIS SPOHR: Symphony No. 7 in C major; Symphony No. 9 in b minor; Erinnerung an Marienbad (Waltz for Small Orchestra) – NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover/ Howard Griffiths – CPO 777 746-2 multi-channel SACD, 70:48  [Distr. by Naxos] (4/14/15) ****:

First; Amazon should correct its search and title entry on this disc because the album cover and information is all correct but the search function gives this album as containing Symphonies No. 7 and 8 but it is definitely No. 7 and 9. [That’s far from the only fault of the Amazon listings – they are mostly incorrect on DVDs & Blu-rays…Ed.]

Not that many people are actively searching for the symphonies of early nineteenth century composer Louis (Ludwig) Spohr. There is part of the problem – or the charm. [One line was that “Spohr’s a bore”…Ed.] Spohr lived and wrote in Germany right after the reign of Beethoven and just as the ultimately much more famous Robert Schumann was writing music and publishing a contemporary music journal.

Schumann, in fact, found much to admire in the symphonies of Spohr and especially admired Spohr’s rather bold approach to orchestration and even early programmatic implications. A good example is his somewhat ponderous and cryptic subtitle to the C major Symphony No. 7; “The Earthly and Divine in Human Life.” This particular work is a healthy length at about thirty-three minutes and utilizes a small chamber orchestra of eleven within the larger context. Spohr even gave this odd configuration some philosophical connotations wherein the smaller group is said to represent ‘good’ and the whole orchestra ‘evil.’

The symphony’s movements are also intended to represent the three phases of human life; childhood, adulthood and old age. Each movement also is prefaced in the score with some equally symbolic lines of prose inspired by the growing philosophical trends in Germany at the time (such as the young Goethe.) This is a well written and entertaining work that, honestly, does not “sound” as deeply philosophical and weighty as Spohr apparently intended. In fact, one could mistake all these works for some by Schumann himself or even Schubert.

Spohr was given to these grasps at innovation and ‘greatness’ in many of his Symphonies (just as a purposefully virtuosic trend runs through all his concerti. This is true – to a lesser extent – in the Symphony No. 9 in b minor. While the work is written in the conventional four movements, Spohr envisioned the tone and intent of the work in two large halves. The first two movements are intended to depict the transition from winter to spring, while the closing two are intended to depict that of summer into autumn. To go with this “four seasons” approach, Spohr used snippets of a theme by Johann André, “Rheinweinlied,” and its implicit rustic and pastoral feel. This too is a very pleasant work which I enjoyed even more than the Symphony No. 7.

The other work here, “Souvenir of Marienbad” for small orchestra is basically an A major waltz in the style of Strauss the elder. There are some fine solo lines throughout the woodwind section but this admittedly charming little piece does not create the curiosity that I think these symphonies do.

The performances here by the North German Radio Philharmonic under English conductor Howard Griffiths are quite good. Griffiths and this ensemble have now recorded all the Spohr symphonies as well as number of other works.  This is, for me, my first exposure to the Spohr Symphonies. There are probably a number of reasons why his music never became nearly as widely performed and as well-known as that of his contemporaries but quality is not really the issue.  No one will mistake these works for Beethoven, let’s say, but they hold up well against many other symphonies of the era including those by Weber and even a couple of the Schuberts.

Certainly the market here is for curiosity seekers but there is no reason to not be one and listen. I do not think you will be disappointed.

—Daniel Coombs