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Louis SPOHR (1784 - 1859): Mass Op. 54, Psalms Op. 85

Kammerchor Stuttgart
Dir: Frieder Bernius

rec: June 10 - 13, 2014, Gönningen, Evangelische Kirche
Carus - 83.291 (© 2016) (51'56")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score Mass Op. 54

Aus der Tiefen (Psalm 130), op. 85,3b; Gott ist mein Hirt (Psalm 23), op. 85,2b; Mass in c minor, op. 54a; Unendlicher! Gott, unser Herr (Psalm 8), op. 85,1b

Annemei Blessing, Maria Bernius (soloab), Sandra Bernius, Jessica Jans, Angelika Lenter, Magdalena Podkoscielna, Julia Riemer, Gudrun Wagner, Leonie Zehle, soprano; Sigrun Bornträger, Julia Diefenbach (soloab), Carolina große Darrelmann (soloa), Franziska Gündert, Franziska Rapke, Elke Rutz, contralto; Florian Benfer, Jo Holzwarth, Henning Jensen, Tobias Mäthger (soloab), Bruno Michlake, Christian Rathgeber, tenor; Emanuel Fluck, Mathis Koch, Johannes Hill, Felix Rathgeber (soloa), Marcus Stäbler, Simon Tischer (solob), bass

Louis Spohr is a pretty well-known figure in the musical landscape of the 19th century, but that doesn't mean his compositions are often performed. For my own site, 1 put together every week a list of live recordings which are broadcast by a number of radio stations across Europe and I very seldom see his name appear on the list of works played by symphony or chamber orchestras. Whereas the orchestral works of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn are available on disc in various performances on period instruments, so far historical performance practice seems to have completely avoided the oeuvre of Louis Spohr. As far as I know only some of his chamber music works were recorded on period instruments, by the ensemble L'Archibudelli based around the cellist Anner Bijlsma.

A look at the list of recordings on ArkivMusic is revealing. His symphonies are available in more than one recording but less than half of of his fifteen concertos for violin - his own instrument - have been recorded. The present disc is devoted to a category in his oeuvre which is the least known. The list on ArkivMusic includes only one recording of the Mass op. 54 and the three Psalms op. 85 which was released by CPO as long ago as 1994. Sacred music takes a relatively small place in Spohr's oeuvre, as in the output of most 19th-century composers, with the notable exception of Mendelssohn. That can be explained from the fact that most of them didn't hold a position in which the composition of sacred music was part of their duties. Moreover, not a few composers had a rather problematic relationship with the Christian faith.

The four works on this disc were not intended for liturgical use, but for performances in the concert hall. The Mass seems not to have been written for a specific occasion or a particular choir, but the three Psalms were composed for the Cäcilienverein, a choir which Spohr had founded in Kassel in 1822. Here he had become Kapellmeister at the court of the Elector of Hesse the year before. These motets and the Mass are remarkable as they attest to his interest in music of the past.

His parents were both amateur musicians and when it turned out that Louis was highly gifted in music they gave him the opportunity to take lessons on the violin in Brunswick. In 1804 he gave his debut as a violinist in the Leipzig Gewandhaus and it resulted in his being hailed as the greatest German violinist of his time. During his studies in Brunswick he also had become acquainted with the long and impressive German tradition in sacred music, including the oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach. The Brunswick Kapellmeister Johann Gottfried Schwanberger had been a lifelong fried of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and also knew the latter's elder brother Wilhelm Friedemann. Moreover, his father had been a pupil of the old Bach. It is especially interesting that Spohr must have studied at least some part of Bach's St Matthew Passion. When Schwanberger died Spohr composed his second violin concerto, whose adagio was a kind of musical obituary of his mentor; in it he included two quotations from the St Matthew Passion. We should emember, this was long before Mendelssohn rediscovered this work; in 1804 the latter was not even born.

Spohr swasalso in contact with the first Bach biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, with Mendelssohn's later teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter and with Christian Friedrich Gottlieb Schwencke, CPE Bach's successor as Stadtkantor in Hamburg. Spohr's musical idol was Mozart and the fact that the latter had carefully studied the works of Bach and Handel further contributed to Spohr's interest in early music. Through Schwanberger, who had studied in Venice, he also became acquainted with earlier Italian sacred music and during his Italian journey in 1816/17 Spohr frequently attended performances of sacred music by composers from the past, as his journal reveals. All these influences have left their mark in the mass and the motets which Frieder Bernius - another expert in 'early music' - recorded with his Kammerchor Stuttgart.

Traces of early music come to the fore in the scoring for double choir. In the mass there are, strictly speaking, three choirs, each consisting of five voices (SSATB). The first 'choir' is a quintet of solo voices; the other two choirs are called coro minore and coro maggiore. The most challenging parts of the mass are allocated to the soloists; they require a wide tessitura and the passages for solo voices are especially difficult in regard to harmony. The second Kyrie is one example of Spohr's challenging use of harmony; another is 'Suscipe deprecationem' in the Gloria. Although Spohr doesn't make use of text expression in the baroque sense of the word there is a clear difference, for instance harmonically, between the episode about the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus on the one hand and his resurrection on the other in the Credo. A second trace of 'baroque' influence is the frequent use of the fugue. In most of the sections of the mass we find such episodes, for instance the Christe eleison and 'In gloria dei patris' in the Gloria.

Fugues are also included in the Psalms op. 85; Psalm 8 ends with one and Psalm 130 even with a double fugue. These Psalms are all for eight voices in two choirs; the texts are translations of the Hebrew texts into German by Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), grandfather of Felix and Fanny. The motets were written in 1832 and Spohr performed them with his Cäcilienverein. This choir had already much experience in the performance of 'early music', for instance polychoral works by Gregorio Allegri and Antonio Lotti. As these works are for choir - and the Cäcilienverein was probably not a professional choir - they are harmonically far less challenging. Even so there are some episodes which include some daring harmony, for instance on the text "und wall' ich ohne Furcht" (I walk without fear) in Psalm 23.

Frieder Bernius' Kammerchor Stuttgart is one of the best chamber choirs in the world. It has a wide repertoire, from the renaissance to contemporary pieces. Although Bernius regularly performs and records standard works - recently Bach's St Matthew Passion - he often comes up with little-known music, for instance sacred works by the opera composer Otto Nicolai. He has also recorded an oratorio by Spohr, Die letzten Dinge. I was very happy with and impressed by the Nicolai disc, and this recent release is another winner. Bernius does wonders with his choir in regard to blending, phrasing, articulation and dynamic differentiation. Add to that a remarkable transparency, diction which ensures that the text pretty comprehensible and a perfect intonation which enables the harmonic peculiarities to come off to the full. The fact that members of the choir take the solo episodes is even more evidence of the high calibre of this ensemble.

Any lover of choral music should investigate this disc which sheds light on an unknown side of an unjustly neglected composer.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

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