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Luigi CHERUBINI (1760-1842)
String Quintet in E minor (1837) [32:10]
George ONSLOW (1784-1853)
String Quintet op.19 in E minor (1821) [21:59]
String Quintet op.51 in G minor (1834) [24:56]
Diogenes Quartet; Manuel van der Nahmer (cello)
rec. Katholische Kirche St Johann Baptist, Schöngeising, 9-14 May 2004
world premiere recordings
cpo 777187-2 [79:59]
 


The disc is subtitled, 'String Quintets in the Paris of the Grand Opera' and it is time and place that link the composers whose works are featured. Chamber music was not as widely performed outside as inside the home, and opera was the main form of secular musical performance at that time in Paris. It was however an international musical centre and the influences of a number of traditions and styles can be heard here.
 
Onslow's two quintets recorded here are separated by thirteen years. However, he composed a total of 34 string quartets (cpo 999060-2; cpo 999329-2 and cpo 999793-2 - see review - give some of them) and 36 string quintets. Favourable personal circumstances allowed him to concentrate on chamber music, which is arguably his most successful musical form and symphonies (cpo 999747-2 - see review - and cpo 999738-2) from 1831 to 1847, after which he returned exclusively to chamber music. He produced an opera as late as 1824.
 
The Op. 19 quintet is influenced mainly by the style of Boccherini and uses what was known as the 'Paris string quintet', i.e. one with two cellos - as do all the works on this disc - as opposed to the 'Vienna string quintet' i.e. one with two violas - as used by Mozart in his quintets. There is more than a hint of the 'quatuor brilliant' style - a mini-concerto for the first violin, with the other instruments playing an accompanying role. The first violin often opens the themes, although this is sometimes done by the first cello, showing a first step away from this compositional approach, which had been widespread in France. The fast-paced final movement is more opera-like in its style, but with a surprise ending. The Op. 21 Quintet distributes weight more evenly between the instrumental voices, particularly towards the cello, showing a further move away from the 'quatuor brilliant' style, and generally evidencing a more mature and developed style.
 
Cherubini is better known for his pupils, notably Beethoven, Berlioz and Rossini, than his own music. In his time, he was active in opera and in sacred music, the two main forms of public performance in his time in Paris, where he was based for much of his life. However music for small ensembles was in demand for playing at home and he also wrote chamber music, such as this string quintet, mainly later in his life. It is thus a mature work, as are the later four of his string quartets, which this follows shortly.
 
The quintet is thus a work of some interest and merit - the mature work of an influential music teacher, in a form which gave more scope for private expression as opposed to the constraints of public performance and audience taste. Cherubini shares with Mozart, Brahms, Schubert and Mendelssohn, as well as with Onslow - the composer of the other pieces on this disc - the writing of a string quintet as the last substantial item of their chamber music output.
 
In fact Cherubini's chamber music has outlived much of his other work, as his operas are now extremely rarely heard now, even in concert version, and his church music only occasionally. The string quartets, though, have been performed by the Bingham Quartet as part of a concert series of lesser-known string chamber works - which also featured the quartets of Zemlinsky and of Elizabeth Maconchy - at London's South Bank. They have also been recorded on Deutsche Grammophon by the Melos Quartett (DG 429 185-2).
 
Cherubini's chamber works have a unique style, belonging neither to the Vienna tradition, begun by Mozart, nor to the style of French opera of the time, characterised by the work of Onslow or Boccherini, cut down to size. Instead it has some elements of both, together with a strong influence from Haydn.
 
The Quintet, although ostensibly in conventional four-movement structure, is more complex than that would suggest as two of the four movements have themselves two distinct sections. It is a lean, muscular work with no wasted material.
 
The playing and recording are both good. The Diogenes Quartet were set up ten years ago in Munich, which is where they most often perform and have set up a concert series. They have recorded works by Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, Dohnanyi and Engelbert Humperdinck in addition to this disc. Manuel van der Nahmer, the first cello, is also based in Munich, where he is a member of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra.
 
All the recordings are world premieres, so this disc is an addition to the available repertoire - which may be of interest in itself - and of course no comparisons can be made in such circumstances! The programme notes are helpful but their translation from the Belgian author's original text is a little stilted.
 
This is a good and worthwhile disc but perhaps one that appeals mainly to those with specialised interests – lesser-known chamber repertoire; French music of the first half of the 19th century; the writings of either of these composers. It may well interest those who have enjoyed the Deutsche Grammophon set of the Cherubini Quartets.
 
Julie Williams
 

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