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Spohr music for violin & harp on original instruments

Arparla: Davide Monti violin Maria Christina Cleary Single-action harps

Stradivarius  STR  33848 [74’ 27”]


Louis Spohr (1784-1859) is one of a group of composers, internationally renowned and celebrated in their day, to be lost in the shadow of Beethoven.


Even now, with greater interest being shown in the works of those unfairly relegated to the position of ‘also rans’, Spohr’s symphonies and works for chamber ensemble get little attention. There is, however, a dark little secret corner in the world of his compositions, that has been held in respectful awe and great delight by those lucky enough to be familiar with it, and it is into this corner that Arparla have turned a bright and well deserved spotlight.


Louis Spohr did not write for the harp. He wrote for his wife, who was a harpist.


Dorethea (Dorette) Spohr née Scheidler, was the daughter of  CG Scheidler, a court composer at Mannheim, and her mother was a court singer,  which placed her in a position to get probably the best musical education available at the time. She studied harp with Backofen, and soon had a reputation for her brilliance and musicality as a performer. A surviving portrait from the early years of the 19th C shows that she was also extremely attractive, which cannot have hurt, and it is said that Louis wrote a number of duets for harp and violin as a means of spending time with her, and after a successful performance, proposed with the question “Werden wir so zusammen um das Leben spielen?” Shall we thus play together for life?


Whether this is true, or a romantic interpretation of events fondly remembered in Spohr’s biography, the resulting pieces, two solos for harp and the duos concertante for harp and violin, are powerful, musical and demanding works written with a full and true understanding of the capabilities of the players and the instruments.


Now, I am a real fan of the single-action harp and its repertoire. I like the endless sets of variations, and the lightweight salon sonatas written for young female harp students to look charming whilst playing as an aid to securing a husband. The works of Spohr do not fit into this category. His demands on the technique of the player equal his pushing of the capabilities and available tonalities of the single-action mechanism, putting these pieces well above the ability of most 18th century harpists, and even with the advent of the double action in 1812 (although Dorette did not move onto the double action until the pair visited London in 1820, where she performed on an Erard Grecian, and promptly gave up the harp for good!) the technical demands of the pieces are still so great that they are either mercilessly battered by modern players who equate speed and volume with ‘good’, or more usually, ignored.


It comes then, as a real joy to hear this recording. Not only is the instrumentation well balanced and completely appropriate, but both players have developed a unified ‘accent’, that rare musical unity bordering on telepathy, that one feels must have existed between the original performers. On the technical side, the recording is both sensitive and naturalistic. The sound is that of the instruments in a room, not the instruments under a thick varnish of post production and reverb.


Monti’s violin playing is a subtly balanced equation of power and clarity tempered by subtle phrasing and a singing line that every player of the modern violin should be made to listen to. The light gut stringing and appropriate bow do not result in any of the slightly enfeebled tone that many expect from period violins, but a clear voice capable of great sweetness, power, attack and directional dynamic. As a historical music nerd, I find the use of a Spohr pattern chin-rest (an invention with which Spohr is credited, along with the conducting baton and rehearsal letters!) fully illustrated in the accompanying booklet, a fascinating component of the performance. It would be interesting to hear the same violin in the same works without the chin-rest to see if it has an appreciable effect on the tone or attack. It is difficult to pick out ‘highlights’ because the general standard is on such a high level, but the Adagio of Op.113 (track 6) is particularly affecting, and the bow-work in  op. 114 (track 9) is, again, a masterclass in what can be achieved with a period set-up.


The power and control of Monti’s violin is more than equaled by Cleary’s elegant, precise and poised command of the harp. Her virtuosic performance couples navigation of some fiendishly difficult pedalling with finger work of enviable tone and power, never sacrificing musical line to technical demand or velocity.


I applaud her decision to play Op. 36 (track 4) and Op. 35 (track 8) on a French harp. The light stringing and resonant nature of the instrument adds both depth of tone and sparkle to a performance of great skill and delicacy, and allows us to hear and appreciate the tonality and timbre that Spohr held in his head as he composed the work. The Fantasie (Op. 35) has found a place on many modern harp programmes and recordings, but on the modern harp, with its unbalanced registers, the quixotic phrases and great swathes of harmony tend to have a false and contrived sound. Here, due to the combination of the right instrument and Cleary’s insightful performance, the improvisatory nature of the piece revealed, with changes of mood rendered in tones of light and shade of great subtlety and nuance.


In the duos, the harp is, as Spohr intended, a full partner in the performance. The slightly denser timbre of the Empire harp in no way detracts from the lightness of touch evident throughout the compositions, and whilst, again with my music nerd hat on, it would have been nice to hear them also on the French harp, the instruments still blend in a way that both pleasing and convincing. On the rare occasions that these works have been recorded on modern instruments, the violin has a tendency to soar off, leaving the heavy sound of the concert harp struggling to keep up. Here, both instruments show lightness, crispness, sweetness and power in equal measure. Lines are separate, yet intertwined, subtle and flexible as living vines twisting around each other without losing their own identity, but making much more than the sum of the parts. For those put off any recording by the prospect of the auditory pink marshmallow that is so much modern harp playing, relax… there is none of that here.


Charming and pretty are, unfortunately, words that seem to be out of fashion in music at present, which I find a great shame. This CD contains music that is both charming and pretty, but coupled, where needed, with power and wrenching intensity. A performance that shows not only great skill from both players, but also an understanding of the compositions that few have bothered to look for.


I have very few harp CDs in my collection because, as a performer, I am wary of sounding like other players. I am keeping this one, however, as I really wouldn’t mind sounding like that!


Mike Parker


Illustration: from Mike Parker playing Krumpholtz http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sU4jmfUgIyw&NR=1