Spohr and Gade String Quartets

Spohr and Gade String Quartets – Today we (Manor House String Quartet) managed to play through seven complete works – two for string quartet, then as Louise (violinist) had to leave early, we tried out a further five for string trio. Here is a video of us performing the first movement of the Spohr quartet:

Firstly, it was a special moment to finally play the Spohr Quartet in G (Op. 82 no. 2) – having spent so many hours re-setting the score (see previous blog posts!). The work lived up to expectations and we feel it’s the best of the Spohr quartets we’ve played so far. The music is evenly spread between all four instruments with an exceptional sense of interplay between the parts. It’s a work full of twists and turns with inventive key changes that lead into unexpected territories. With memorable tunes and a high level of compositional skill, this is definitely up there in the top bracket of the string quartet repertoire – certainly not out of place in the company of pieces by Schubert and Mendelssohn. The first movement is genial, like an amble through the countryside on a sunny day whereas the Adagio slow movement has a real sense of poise, also written in a flowing style. There is a real change of tack at the opening of the third movement with dramatic triplets and great tension followed by release – but it’s the Allegro finale which is one of the catchiest tunes, reminding me a little bit of a fairground carousel with some quite spirited turns that made us smile while we were playing. We can always tell when a piece is going to be a real quartet¬†favourite because at least one of us wants to play it again straight away – and on this occasion the decision was unanimous – all four of us were keen to repeat the first movement and we had to restrain ourselves from playing the whole thing through twice. We absolutely can’t wait to play this in a concert – as it’s a great way to introduce Spohr to audience members who are unfamiliar with his work.

Secondly we opted for a quartet in D major by Niels Gade – which was an impressive work in four movements. Like the Spohr, the quartet was expertly written with a high level of craftsmanship – as such it gave a great feeling of satisfaction as a whole – no doubt it’s dramatic ending would be a real crowd pleaser. It seems at times that Gade is so brilliant at constructing form,¬†instrumentation and harmony – that even in moments where the musical inspiration is slightly less, he still manages to convince fully through sheer technical skill. Gade seems to be a real master at ‘dramatic endings’ with some particularly prolonged series of chords to end each movement. We thought it might leave the audience uncertain when to start clapping or whether¬†there was to be yet another pregnant pause¬†followed by¬†a further¬†outburst of startling chords. Written one year before his death, this is well worth exploring as an example of Danish music of the period.

Sadly, Louise had to leave a little earlier today with her extremely musical chocolate labrador called Oscar – who had been very well behaved and shown great appreciation at some of the works we had played. Interestingly in the more joyous movements, his tail would wag and he’d charge about the room, sniffing at our feet and generally trying to take part. In slower, more emotionally ambiguous passages, he would yawn, lay down or indulge in some disinterested scratching – so this gave us a potential insight into the impression the pieces might make on an audience!

After Louise had gone, we set to work on some trios for violin, viola and ‘cello – starting with a rather strange composition called Wanderstimmungen by Oswald Korte (1852 – 1924). The work is a collection of five short pieces based on a country ramble. These must rank as amongst the most bizarre and downright eccentric pieces of chamber music any of us had ever come across! Consisting of tunes which were of an almost nursery rhyme simplicity, it would then burst into random passages of high virtuosity before returning to it’s former¬†meanderings. One real highlight of the piece is the fifth movement which has a jig like theme – abruptly leading into something that sounded more like a beer drinking song. Strangest of all was the way that (without warning) the violin and cello parts come to a sudden halt, leaving the viola with a lengthy Cadenza in a romantic style. This viola Cadenza was¬†several minutes long and totally disproportionate to the miniature pieces. The piece was greatly enjoyed, but more for its comedic value.

Feeling the need to try something a little bit saner – we opted for a set of three trios (in F, G and A) by the English Composer William Shield. We were disappointed! These trios are also touched by eccentricity with never a dull moment. Like Korte, Shield was not one to shy away from inappropriate virtuosity composing some quaint music interspersed with frighteningly pyrotechnic passagework and flying staccato. Such oddities included a slow movement containing an ornamentation consisting of nine demi-semi quavers and a jolly scherzo in 5/4 time. Just when we’d been lulled into a sense of security by a gentle Larghetto, in the G major trio, the cello¬†part went completely¬†ballistic in the rondo, playing frenzied passages more suited to the violin register. In the trio in A, the opening Allegro is preceded by a small Andante movement which we all knew by then was the calm before the storm – it hit us with full force in the Allegro with some wayward passagework that included a descending figure that went down a semi tone. Shield¬†seems to have been so proud of this innovative effect that he continued to repeat it five times in a row. When all the furore came to a standstill with a pause, the work finally ended with even more commotion. An inspid but strangely disturbing romance leads to a waltz with a theme that switches from major to minor several times in quick succession. Suddenly, in one of these switches to a minor key, the piece becomes deathly pale but instantly recovers in the next major section to end in jolly high spirits. The effect was rather like undergoing extreme mood swings. This music also had¬†a lot¬†of inherant comedy but in it’s own way, made a real impression and we enjoyed it immensely.

The day ended with a gentle¬†stroll through Hubert Parry’s two Intermezzi for string trio of 1884. These innocent and mild mannered pieces were like swimming through calmer waters and stayed in quite safe territory – they are attractive and charming and would be a worthwhile addition to a concert of English music.

We¬†had a great play today – and it just goes to show that exploring chamber music can be equally¬†enjoyable when it’s accomplished works as when we’re playing neglected pieces that are full of interest – albeit frankly bizarre!