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Georges ONSLOW (1784-1853)
Symphony No.1 in A major Op.41 (1831)
Symphony No.3 in F minor (1834)
NDR Radiophilharmonie/Johannes Goritzki
Recorded NDR Grosser Sendesaal, March and April 2002
CPO 999 747-2 [64.23]

Onslow seems to be making a comeback. No, that’s wrong. He’s never been around in the first place so record companies have begun to discover his chamber and symphonic music, which can only be good news for those inquisitive into French music in the period after Gossec and before Berlioz. And yet even that’s not quite right because the overlap with Berlioz is crucial and was used as something of a stick with which to beat the more traditional minded Onslow. And this in turn led to his eclipse in the minds of a Franco-German audience that had welcomed him wholeheartedly – and then the wider pan-European audience that saw triumphant revivals of his works. But the seeds of his precipitous decline were doubtless early sown. A symphonic composer in an operatically inclined Paris his symphonies had the misfortune to be premiered in the wake of Berlioz’s Sinfonie fantastique and Beethoven’s Ninth. And so, by mid century and his death in 1853 his eclipse was well and truly total.

At this remove it’s possible to hear what the fuss was about. Yes, these are certainly big traditional symphonic statements. Yes, they open with portentous Largo introductions and yes, the crisp post-classical writing has clearly lent an ear to Schubert. There’s a brief fugal episode as well in the first movement of the A major and strong writing for middle string voices that in this performance are magically apparent. The melodic distinction is evident here as is the rather mobile and strong approach to slow movements (no sentimentalist, Onslow, even though it’s marked espressivo). The A major’s Minuet is bustly with ingenious pomposo elements with a piping trio above stolid bass line (a typically witty touch) and the finale is confident if not altogether distinctive.

The later work, the Third Symphony, was completed three years later. There’s fine writing for bassoon and horn and a canny ear for colour and texture but local detail does tend to take precedence over novelty of design; it tends to be rather static. The rhythmically swaying scherzo adds brio and the slow movement is notable for the clarinet cantilena that flows so warmly through it. But one can’t really say that the work is an obvious advance on the preceding two symphonies, cogent and well argued though it undoubtedly is.

The notes are very full and frank, and they lay out the Onslow symphonic dilemma with unusual candour. The performances are detailed and colourful and serious. Together they make out a case for Onslow’s relative importance in the scheme of things; his is a voice that should be heard and not simply in relation to other bigger names.

Jonathan Woolf


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