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Rare revival for Spohr oratorio

27 March 2015

by Roderic Dunnett


THE newly renamed Oxford Harmonic Choir (formerly Society) is one of those satisfying large ensembles that shows both imagination and discernment in presenting works of the 18th or 19th century which have, for whatever cause, dropped out of the repertoire.

In June, they will perform Mirjams Siegesgesang - Miriam's Victory Song, a work by Schubert celebrating the escape of the Israelites from Egypt and the destruction of Pharaoh's army: a joyous celebration of victory, set alongside the now more familiar St Cecilia Mass of Gounod.

Their latest offering was to present at Oxford Town Hall an oratorio by the now almost forgotten Louis (Ludwig) Spohr, one of the most important figures on the cusp of the Classical and Romantic eras.

Spohr (1784-1859), who spent his later life in Kassel as court conductor, was initially best known as a conductor and virtuoso violinist - as a vital and attractive performance here of his Violin Concerto No. 8 (he composed 18) by the Ukrainian-born violinist Dima Tkachenko, demonstrated. Spohr's writing often recalls Mendelssohn - or perhaps it is the other way round; some of the interplay between the lyrical violin line and pizzicato lower strings, an evocative emergence by the violas, and the vital cadenza that introduces the last movement were telling moments in this expressive performance.

Spohr wrote several operas - Faust and Jessonda occasionally surface nowadays - and four sacred oratorios: Der Fall Babylons (The Fall of Babylon) was the last; earlier came Des Heilands Letzte Stunden (or Calvary); and the early Das jüngste Gericht bears some relation to Die letzten Dinge, translated into English as The Last Judgement.

It was The Last Judgement, first heard on Good Friday 1826,which was hugely popular with British choirs last century, celebrated in popular taste after only Messiah and Elijah (and latterly Sullivan's The Golden Legend).

This was a vigorous, beautifully prepared, and stylish reading from the Oxford Harmonic under its uplifting conductor Robert Secret. The very first sections, the choir's "Praise his name", interspersed with soprano and bass arias - the splendid Susan Young and wonderfully idiomatic Quentin Hayes - suggested a fine performance in the making; and that, happily, is what we got throughout.

The critic Friedrich Rochlitz's libretto draws skilfully, above all, on the book of Revelation. Perhaps one of Spohr's weaknesses is that his essentially straightforward harmony springs not enough surprises, being strong on narrative but thin on 

word-painting. There were one or two promising touches of wood­wind, but these rarely revealed true originality. Syncopated strings for the solo tenor then chorus at "Bless­ing, honour, glory and power", following a resplendent and elec­trifying "Holy, holy, holy", was a high point. The rich body of text reserved for the fine mezzo, Janet Shell, "These have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb", with sundry woodwind as obbligato, underlines the noble quality of text on which the oratorio hinges.

Spohr includes three or four vocal quartets, which, with a soprano-mezzo pairing, lend variety, and lift the work. The great bass solo "Thus saith the Lord: the end is near" comes closest to a Wagner recita­t-ive, reminding us that Spohr was one of the earliest to take up Wag­ner's cause: indeed, at times the work comes unexpectedly close to early Wagner - Lohengrin, say, or the rare, early Die Feen. At times his thunderous brass rivals Berlioz, as in the fugal chorus "If with your whole hearts ye humbly seek me," which follows a prolonged soprano-tenor duet. Some passages indeed seemed over-long; yet this underlined the grand scale on which Spohr de­­signed the work.

The choir's "Destroyed is
Babylon the great" is just one of those brac­ing sequences in which it is obvious that Spohr is conscious of Handel, and seeks to emulate him in the large choruses, just as Mendels­sohn drew fruitfully on J. S. Bach. This was equally true of the at­­tractive soprano solo, "I saw a new heaven and a new earth", with its unusual afterword, "Nor sun shall be, nor moon: God is their sun; there shall His majesty unclouded rise."

As satisfying as any part of the oratorio is the final doxology, nobly built up to a (here) perfectly paced fugue in which the Oxford Har­monic continued to show its mettle. The combination of vigorous, perpetually alert chorus and quality soloists could not but make the best possible case for The Last Judge­ment. Perhaps, once we know it better, it will deserve to rejoin the repertoire.

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