I was surprised to find that I have written more than half a dozen reviews of chamber music recordings of works by Louis Spohr (1784-1859), most of them either on the Naxos label or its sister label, Marco Polo. And now we have the first in what will undoubtedly be a complete edition of performances of Spohr's double quartets. Unlike Mendelssohn's String Octet, which integrates all eight instruments into a whole, Spohr's double quartets are works in which two distinct string quartets play against each other, mostly functioning throughout as separate groups in antiphonal style. [Spohr wrote, 'I imagined how two quartets sitting close to each other should be made to play one piece of music ...'] It is said that the form was suggested by an older violinist, Andreas Romberg, with whom Spohr, himself a virtuoso violinist, had played chamber music. The double quartet appears to have been a form invented by Spohr, and he wrote four of them; this CD comprises the first two, Opp. 65 and 77. They are favorites of string players, whether they be conservatory students or professionals. The group on this recording, the Forde Ensemble, is an ad hoc group made up of string principals in London orchestras who gather annually at Forde Abbey to play chamber repertory. One can imagine the great enjoyment they must have from playing these unfailingly melodious, well-crafted works. Their performances are marvelous, and although there is an old recording of the First Double Quartet featuring, among others, Jascha Heifetz Spohr: Concerto No. 8; Double Quartet; Beethoven: Serenade, this recording more than holds its own, and of course is in modern sound. There is also a very good recording of all four double quartets on a 2CD set by members of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Spohr: Double Quartets.
Spohr has been dismissed by some as being facile and shallow. He had the unfortunate talent of making his music sound simpler than it actually is. Examination of his scores makes one realize what a superb craftsman he was, and what a magnificent tunesmith. One time through his works is often enough to embed his melodies in one's aural memory. He has perhaps been sneered at for not making music that is tough to 'get'. But I say that his is a talent akin to that of, say, Mendelssohn's (who has been criticized as well for his facility) and I for one am glad that there has been a burgeoning interest in his music in the past twenty years or so.