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Georges ONSLOW (1784-1853)
String Quintet, Op. 34 (1829) [34:19]
String Quintet, Op. 35 (1829) [30:13]
Quintett Momento Musicale
rec. Rathaussaal Markleeberg, 12-15 August 2002

The French-born Georges Onslow, who studied composition with Anton Reicha in Paris after training as a pianist in London, was best-known during his lifetime for his chamber music, his star fading as French tastes gravitated towards the larger designs of the symphonic poem and grand opera. Cordula Timm-Hartmann's notes cite classical models for these four-movement string quintets, specifically Boccherini, but it's more complicated than that. The two "minuets" are nothing of the sort: that of Opus 34 is temperamentally akin to a Beethoven scherzo, while that of Opus 35 has a genial, Ländlerisch buoyancy. And the yearning, expressive harmonic idiom and long, singing lines suggest the lyrical side of Schumann, infused with an extra measure of elegance.

On the other hand, the outer movements of both quintets are rigorously worked-out, substantial sonata structures - that of Op. 34 is nearly fourteen minutes long. And Onslow does copy Boccherini's use of two cellos - rather than the customary two violas - in the ensemble, releasing one of the cellos from bass duties for melodic use, and thus enlivening the textures. (In these performances, the substitution of a double-bass for the second cello, as approved by the composer, offers an additional measure of depth and further enhances the sense of "symphonic" dimensions.)

The dramatic Opus 34 quintet sustains the listener's attention from the cello's agitated statement of the opening phrases. The first movement's powerful, expansive development imaginatively explores the expressive possibilities of the two themes. Flickering major-key harmonies all too briefly lighten the anxious, uneasy minor mood of the "minuet." The Adagio espressivo begins with strongly weighted suspensions producing large-scale tension, while a secondary theme sings with poised simplicity over a walking bass. The Finale offers a lively interplay of various melodic and accompanying strands, with a moment of hushed anticipation at 5:14 further ratcheting up the tension. Opus 35 is quirkier and less imposing, but still most enjoyable: the outer movements offer well-wrought conflict and resolution, while the Andante cantabile opens with a dignified chorale worthy of Beethoven.

The members of the Quintett Momento Musicale serve up Opus 34 with clear purpose, hair-trigger attacks and releases, impeccable balances, and an attractive, burnished ensemble tone. They have a nice feeling for the musical ebb and flow, the thrust and contrasting lyricism, of Opus 35 as well, but the odd detail gets away from them. The bassist can't quite make his running figures (originally intended for cello, of course) intelligible in the first movement; the chord that launches the development is smudged - it seems to take the players by surprise; and the motivic fragments that begin the Finale don't immediately coalesce into a clear scansion.

Still, this music and these performances are well worth getting to know, and the clear, vivid, subtly ambient recorded sound makes it a pleasure to do so.

Stephen Francis Vasta

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