Despite his importance in the history of early nineteenth century music, both in German speaking lands and in Victorian Britain, the extensive oeuvre of Louis Spohr for the most part fell out of favour after his death and only some of his finely-crafted and attractive chamber music survived in the performing and, later, recording repertoire. It is in the last couple of decades that his cycle of ten symphonies have seen a renaissance; Marco Polo led the way in the 1990s and there are, as I write, two ongoing alternative cycles from CPO and Hyperion.
The symphonies themselves veer between experimental, programmatic works and pieces without any extra-musical content. In his "abstract" music, Spohr attempted to find an alternative to the symphonic style of Beethoven, taking as his model Mozart at his most lyrical. All the symphonies are variable in quality but the third, in C minor (a genteel riposte to Beethoven's own C minor, fifth symphony?) is one of his finest - perhaps the finest of the whole cycle, to my mind. Whereas Spohr's Mozartian first symphony had been a polished and euphonious homage to the past, the third symphony bears the stamp of the early Romantic movement; the opening 'allegro' may well remind you of Mendelssohn's own third symphony, which was to follow some years later. Spohr apparently felt that his music had been unfairly characterised as "melancholy" and there are indeed elements of that mood here (especially in the slow introduction, which returns in the development section, a rather lacklustre "innovation" that serves little effective purpose) but they are balanced successfully with a more optimistic sounding second subject in the woodwind. It is a beautifully judged and crafted movement that builds to an effective climax in its coda. The `larghetto' is a lyrical and warm-hearted movement that displays the composer's imaginative scoring at its best. The follows a fleet scherzo and a lively finale that is a kind of contrapuntal display-piece, Spohr putting his attractive and memorable material through all sort of tricks before unleashing a full-scale fugue.
The sixth symphony, which Spohr presented eleven years after the third, is one of his more curious experimental works. Titled verbosely, `Historical Symphony in the style and taste of four different periods', the opening movement is a pastiche of "the Bach-Handel period - 1720" (music in the "pastorale" style - or at least, a nineteenth century conception of it - framed by a heavy-handed fugue); the `larghetto' that follows is marked as characterising the "Mozart-Haydn period - 1780" but simply sounds like Spohr; the scherzo is supposed to represent the Beethoven period and if ever there was needed evidence of the gulf between that composer's and Spohr's artistic sensibilities, this amiable but hardly-very-dynamic scherzo provides it. The finale, marked "The most recent period - 1840", seems to have provoked the most discussion from Spohr's contemporaries, being an attempt to satirise the way 'modern' composers chose novelty and effect over solid musical values and good taste. It's a rather limp affair, all told, its musical jokes rather obvious and its noisy orchestration wearing and at odds with the tone of the rest of the symphony. Mendelssohn apparently suggested that a movement in the style of Spohr's Romantic opera overtures would have been more appropriate and I think he was right. The `Historical Symphony' is something of a curate's egg - certainly there is music to enjoy here but much of it does simply sound like Spohr always does, as Robert Schumann pointed out at the time; one could imagine the "Bachian" fugue, for example, occurring in any one of his serious-toned oratorios on biblical subjects.*
The filler on the disc is from one of those very oratorios and it is hard to imagine anything sounding less evocative of the destruction of Babylon than this tepid piece. Perhaps Spohr's creativity was stifled by the religious subject matter but it is far cry from the best of his opera overtures, such as `Pietro von Abano' or `Jessonda' - a selection of which, incidentally, are available on a fine disc from CPO here: Spohr: Overtures
The same coupling of symphonies made up one of the earlier Marco Polo CDs, offering a direct rival to this new disc from Hyperion and Howard Shelley; in a variable cycle, the performances of the two symphonies under Alfred Walter were surprisingly good, the best in their series, and there is little to choose from performance-wise between Walter and Shelley in the third symphony. In the `Historical Symphony' I think Shelley maybe has the edge in realising Spohr's aims. The sound quality is finer and clearer on the Hyperion disc too. If your interest is solely in the third symphony I would choose either Shelley or Walter over the CPO performance under Howard Griffiths.
It is probably unlikely that any of Spohr's symphonies will regain a regular place in the concert hall and for the most part I think that's fair judgement, but the third symphony really is a very satisfying work that would repay greater exposure. For Hyperion's enterprise and Shelley's fine performances and, above all, for the masterly C minor symphony I think this disc merits four stars.
* Spohr, of course, played his own important part alongside Mendelssohn in the nineteenth century "Bach revival".