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George ONSLOW (1784-1853)
String Quintets Vol. 3

Quintet for two violins, viola, cello and double bass in C minor, Op. 38 ‘The Bullet’ (1829) [28.57]
Quintet for two violins, viola, cello and double bass in C minor, Op. 67 (1843) [33.17]
Quintett Momento Musicale: (Dorothée Stromberg, violin; Andreas Tränkner, violin; Michael Clauß, viola; Hans-Jörg Pohl, cello; Steffen Slowik, double-bass)
rec. 12-15 July 2005, Rathaussaal, Markkleberg, Germany. DDD
MUSIKPRODUKTION DABRINGHAUS UND GRIMM MDG 603 1390-2 [62.29]


The independent German label MDG continue their survey of Onslow’s string quintets. Highly regarded by the music world in his day before falling into relative obscurity there is now widespread and growing interest in the music of French composer Onslow which has revealed the scope and beauty of his works. Clearly MDG have taken on a substantial commitment as the prolific Onslow wrote the staggering number of 34 String Quintets. The first two volumes comprise Opp. 33 and 74 from the Ensemble Concertant Frankfurt on MDG 603 1233-2 and the Opp. 34 and 35 from the Quintett Momento Musicale on MDG 603 1253-2 (see review).
 
George Onslow (see biography page), the son of an English father, from an old aristocratic British family and a French mother, was born at Clermont-Ferrand in 1784 and lived his entire life in France. George’s father Edward had settled in France after a family scandal forced him to leave his mother country. Several members of George’s family had played an important part in British political life, notably his grandfather, the first Earl of Onslow, who was the Speaker of the House of Commons.
 
Onslow studied piano with Johann Baptiste Cramer as a young boy whilst in London. His only composition teacher was Anton Reicha with whom he studied in Paris 1807-1808. The 'Gentleman Composer' was launched into a brilliant career which turned him into a leading composer of musical life in the first half of nineteenth century
 
Perhaps no composer, more than Onslow, illustrates the fickleness of fame. Onslow’s 36 string quartets and 34 string quintets were, during his own lifetime and up to the end of the 19th century, held in the highest esteem. Sometimes nicknamed the ‘French Beethoven’, Onslow was particularly admired in Germany, Austria and England where he was regularly placed in the front rank of composers alongside Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, of whom people declared that he was the only worthy successor. Artist A. Maurin, in 1844, produced a drawing of a ‘Galery of the modern lyric composers that showed Onslow seated alongside fellow composers; Halévy, Meyerbeer, Spontini, Rossini, Berlioz, Donizetti, Auber, Mendelssohn and Berton. Onslow’s work was admired by both Beethoven and Schubert, the latter modelling his own Cello Quintet, D.956 on those of Onslow and not, as is so often claimed, on those of Boccherini. Schumann, perhaps the foremost music critic during the first part of the 19th century and also Mendelssohn, regarded Onslow’s chamber music on a par with that of Mozart. Haydn and Beethoven. Onslow was the only musician, at least in France, who devoted himself almost entirely to the genre of chamber music.
 
Breitkopf & Härtel and Kistner were among many publishers that competed to bring out Onslow’s works. Such was Onslow’s reputation that he was elected to succeed Cherubini as Director of the prestigious Académie des Beaux-Arts. This was based on the excellence of his chamber music; this, in an “Opera Mad France”, a country that at that time had little regard for chamber music. Onslow’s writing was unique in that he was successfully able to merge the drama of the opera into the chamber music idiom perfected by the Vienna masters.
 
After the Great War, Onslow’s music, along with that of so many other fine composers, fell into oblivion and up until 1984, the bicentennial of his birth, he remained virtually unknown. Onslow’s works were missing from the repertoire for so long partly due to the fact that they haven’t been available in a modern edition for more than a century. Another reason why interpreters gave up playing his quartets and quintets was because they were considered difficult to perform.
 
Besides his 36 string quartets and 34 string quintets, which were and remain his best known and regarded works, Onslow also wrote 10 piano trios, 3 piano quintets, a quintet for piano and winds, 2 sextets for winds and piano, a septet for winds and piano, a nonet for strings and winds, 6 sonatas for violin and piano and 3 sonatas for cello and piano. in addition to his chamber music, Onslow composed four symphonies, four operas, several works for solo piano as well as vocal works.
 
Onslow’s String Quintet, Op. 38, subtitled ‘The Bullet’ is linked to a dramatic episode in his life when he was accidentally shot in the cheek whilst boar hunting at a country house called Saint Augustin, near Château-sur-Allier. It seems that Onslow wrote the movement Délire (Delirium) on the night of the shooting in 1829. The title page of the 1830 edition of the score states, “Following a serious incident, the Composer has attempted to express his pain, convalescence and recovery in the Minuet, Andante and Finale of this Quintet.”
 
The work opens with a substantial and close-textured movement marked Allegro moderato ed espressivo. The first theme is darkly dramatic in character and suggests that Onslow was planning, even before the dramatic hunting accident, a deeply expressive score. In the second movement, a feverish and hectic mood of the Minuet - Dolore, Onslow uses contrasting elements to achieve striking effects and make his suffering palpable. The third movement Convalescenza, Andante has a quiet mooted tone and sways gently like a peaceful lullaby. The final movement Guarigione (Recovery) is a joyful expression of gratitude. Mainly for its expressive character Onslow’s Op. 38 Quintet has been compared to the Beethoven’s late String Quartet Op. 132.       

Onslow’s String Quintets are usually marked for performance either by two cellos or cello and double-bass; it seems likely that the Op. 67 score was more specifically intended for the cello/double-bass combination. Onslow had described how he welcomed the considerable improvement of the new four-string double-bass over the old three-string instrument. Composed in 1843 the Op. 67 score is also in C minor, which is always a very expressive key in Onslow’s music.
 
In the opening movement the first theme is resolutely dynamic and open but can also be very lyrical. The exuberant virtuosity of the first violin soon gives way to a second theme that unfolds its fluid melodic line throughout all parts. The second movement is a frantic Minuetto followed by a lyrical Andante with melancholic undertones. Onslow does not submit to the tradition of a carefree and boisterous Finale. Instead the sweeping last movement combines a rich and contrasting sound palette, making the musical conversation even more dramatic and contributes to making this one of Onslow’s most significant works.
 
The players of the Quintett Momento Musicale impressed me recently with their release of Onslow’s contemporary the Austrian Joseph Eybler’s String Quintet in D major and String Trio, Op. 2 on MDG 603 1321-2 (see review). The Quintett Momento Musicale, are a string quartet with double-bass who perform using modern instruments. They were formed in 1992 by young musicians from Leipzig and Halle/Saale who are leading players from in the Philharmonisches Staatsorchester and the Opera House Orchestra in their respective cities. In addition each member has chamber music teaching posts at the Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg.
 
The players of the Quintett Momento Musicale in these Onslow scores display the ability to make even the simplest phrase sound expressive and they produce the most beautiful tonal shading. The German ensemble have an impressive sense of line; balancing the phrasing and points of emphasis to project the composer’s expansive designs to great effect. In the feverish second movement Dolore of Op. 38 I was particularly impressed with their playing of the strong and sudden contrasts between fortissimo and pianissimo that follow each other in breathless succession. The Ensemble Momento Musicale is impressive for their warm tone and careful sense of blend and balance to bring out the full-toned beauty of their playing. I loved their expressive and lyrical playing in the Andante of Op. 67 where the melancholic undertones that pervade the movement are highly convincing. This is impeccable playing from the Leipzig-based quintet with an especially beautifully blended timbre.
 
The recorded sound from the MDG engineers is of a decent enough quality and the liner notes are helpful. Onslow’s music is well worth exploring and in performances such as these will provide considerable rewards.
 
Michael Cookson
 

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