SPOHR: Clarinet Concerto No. 1 in C Minor; Clarinet Concerto no. 2 in E-flat Major; Potpourri in F Major, Op. 80; Variations in B-flat Major – Michael Collins, clarinet/ Swedish Chamber Orchestra/ Robin O’Neill – Hyperion

SPOHR: Clarinet Concerto No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 26; Clarinet Concerto no. 2 in E-flat Major, Op. 57; Potpourri in F Major, Op. 80; Variations in B-flat Major – Michael Collins, clarinet/ Swedish Chamber Orchestra/ Robin O’Neill – Hyperion CDA 67509  62:20 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi) ****:

Louis Spohr (1784-1859) achieved a major reputation in German music-making during the first half of the 19th Century. Spohr takes credit for having risen from the first violinist’s desk to assume the conductor’s role in leading an ensemble. In 1805 Spohr accepted the post of Music Director at the court of Gotha, where in 1808 he met clarinet virtuoso Johann Simon Hermstedt (1778-1846), the wind band director at the court of Sondershausen. Over the course of two years, Spohr would compose eight major pieces for Hermstedt, whose fellowship and musicianship Spohr found perfectly congenial, since both were Freemasons who adored and performed Mozart’s music. Their friendship was sealed after they collaborated in a performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet.

The C Minor Concerto (1812) begins with a slow introduction and has an abbreviated ritornello, the soloist entering after eight bars. The compression continues throughout the movement, the second subject having been derived from the opening material. The Adagio plays as a lovely intermezzo, with violins and celli in support of the solo. The Rondo is lively and knotty, and the solo gets a real workout running up and down the chromatic scale back to C Minor. The Potpourri in F Major (1811) draws upon two arias from an opera by Peter von Winter entitled The Interrupted Feast-Offering. Part of the opening aria sounds like Yankee Doodle. Some tricky trills and leaps in register make this a bravura piece for virtuosos only.

The E-flat Major Concerto (1810) presents a more traditional concerto structure, although the clarinet responds for a moment just before the tutti takes off in earnest. Trumpets and drums impose a festive character to the writing, which bounces from D-flat back to B-flat. Spohr avoids cadenzas in his concertos, so the martial air, in the manner of Weber, dominates without interruption. The Adagio is in A-flat, dipping into the clarinet’s low, chalumeau register and the through leaps and runs which it shares with the flute and bassoon. Muted tympani and horn open the Rondo: Alla Polacca, a veritable froth-fest of color and control in the upper register – C altissimo. The B-flat Variations (1809) on Spohr’s own opera Alruna the Owl-Queen, which he withdrew from production at Weimar but whose seventh number duet he immortalized with this virtuoso piece for Hermstedt. The performances, taped 24-28 May 2004 in Orebro, Sweden, enjoy a transparency of sound and intimacy of projection rare for the kind of full-throttle virtuosity Spohr requires. Both the sound and the sensibility of composer Spohr resembles Carl Maria von Weber enough to make them identical twins. Engineer Phil Rowlands deserves credit for a sonically superior product.

— Gary Lemco

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