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George ONSLOW (1784-1853)
Violin Sonatas Op. 16 (1819): No. 1 in F major; No. 2 in C minor; No. 3 in A major
Ilia Korol (violin); Norbert Zeilberger (fortepiano)
rec. 5-7 November 2007, Beethovensaal Heiligenstadt, Vienna, Austria. DDD


Experience Classicsonline

Since the death of Beethoven, he is the one who holds the sceptre of instrumental music.” Hector Berlioz on Onslow 

As George Onslow is a rarely heard name I feel it appropriate to provide some basic biographical information on the composer. For additional detail the Onslow website is a most valuable resource.

The son of an English father from an old aristocratic English family and a French mother, George Onslow was born at Clermont-Ferrand in 1784 and for his entire life made his home in France. Onslow’s father, Edward had settled in France after a family scandal had forced him to leave England. Several members of George Onslow’s family were active in British political life. His grandfather, the first Earl of Onslow, became the Speaker of the House of Commons. 

As a young boy George Onslow was a piano student of Johann Ladislaus Dussek and Johann Baptiste Cramer. Later Anton Reicha taught Onslow composition and they studied together in Paris. Throughout Europe, primarily in the field of chamber music, Onslow became one of the most successful composers of his generation. He was so well regarded that he succeeded Cherubini as Director of the prestigious Académie des Beaux-Arts, was elected to the Fine Arts Academy and was made a member of a number of Philharmonic societies in Europe. 

During his lifetime and for some fifty years later the popularity of Onslow’s music had spread throughout many European countries. Evidently Schumann and Mendelssohn frequently ranked Onslow alongside the great composers Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. In fact he was nicknamed as the ‘French Beethoven’. An example of Onslow’s elevated status was seen in 1844 when the artist A. Maurin produced a drawing titled ‘Gallery of the Modern Lyric Composers where Onslow is seen seated alongside a number of eminent composers that were at that time associated with Parisian musical life: Auber, Berlioz, Berton, Donizetti, Halévy, Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Rossini and Spontini. In contrast to these mainly esteemed opera composers Onslow concentrated primarily in writing chamber music. 

Once fêted by the music establishment Onslow’s music, like many from his generation became unfashionable. Taste had rapidly changed and many of the early Romantics of that generation became marginalized. Onslow’s music quickly moved into virtual obscurity. Practical drawbacks included the unavailability of modern editions of Onslow’s music and players often found the music difficult to perform. The bicentennial of Onslow’s birth in 1984 greatly assisted in a resurgence of interest. 

Undoubtedly he is best known today for his vast amount of chamber music, in particular his 36 String Quartets and 34 String Quintets. He also wrote 6 Sonatas for violin and piano, 3 Sonatas for cello and piano, 10 Piano Trios, 3 Piano Quintets, a Quintet for piano and winds, 2 Sextets for winds and piano, a Septet for winds and piano and a Nonet for strings & winds. There were also four operas and four symphonies, a number of works for solo piano and some vocal works. Onslow’s prodigious chamber output at that time was out of touch with the slight interest shown in the genre by the opera-loving French audiences. 

Challenge Classics has joined CPO and MDG in championing the cause with this fascinating release of the op. 16 sonatas. In 1819 he composed a set of Duos (Sonatas), Op. 16 that were intended for the keyboard with either the violin, viola or cello. For this release the violin has been chosen. The booklet notes state that:

Ilia Korol opted for the violin because of the tessitura; this would have been less beautiful on a lower-pitched instrument, whereas the violin provides a brilliant contrast to the partially dense structure of the piano part.” 

The Kiev-born Ilia Korol and Norbert Zeilberger who hails from Schärding in Austria are period instrument specialists. Korol uses an anonymous violin from North Italy around 1730 and Zeilberger plays a fortepiano. The latter was made by Albrecht Czernin from 2006 using an original South German corpus, circa 1815 itself reconstructed and added to in the style of the time. 

The opening score is the three movement Violin Sonata No. 1 in F major. In the opening Allegro the tempo feels on the conservative side. One notices in Onslow’s writing how much of the interplay between the two instruments is punctuated by pauses. In the Andante the attractive melodies have a distinct rocking quality. In the Finale, Allegretto the violin seems to be accompanying the extrovert fortepiano which takes centre-stage. 

The Violin Sonata No. 2 in C minor is designed in Onslow’s more usual four movement plan. The score contains an extended opening movement marked Allegro espressivo. It feels a touch too long for its material. At first the movement has a dream-like character at times conveying a sense of distance. I was fascinated by the number of interwoven themes. The Menuetto allegro movement has a fine melodic line for the violin with highly rhythmic accompaniment from the fortepiano. A solo section for the fortepiano at 2:44-3:36 makes an interesting feature and I enjoyed the mischievous ending to the movement. Predominantly a lovely relaxed movement the Adagio cantabile increases in intensity before quickly returning to its former tranquillity. The Finale, Allegretto is an impressive movement of varying moods. The violin writing gives a dance-like quality to the themes. 

The final score is the three movement Violin Sonata No. 3 in A major. Lively and attractive I found the opening movement, marked Allegro vivace, evocative of a pair of love-birds darting from branch to branch. In the central Adagio the attractive violin theme has the fortepiano beating out a relentless and rather repetitive accompaniment. There is spirited playing in the final Agitato e molto espressivo. It radiates a Haydnesque good-humour. 

Using period instruments it is hard to fault the commitment and sense of spontaneity of these creditable performances. Generally I found a joyful buoyancy and freshness in Onslow’s faster movements. This contrasts with the subtlety of the relaxing slow movements. The distinctive sound of the fortepiano will certainly not be to everyone’s taste. However, one’s ear does get used to a sound that can often come across as clumpy and abrasive. Despite what maybe a considerable drawback for some listeners it is fascinating to have available this combination of period instruments. It surely replicates the sound that the composer himself would have envisaged. 

This disc is closely recorded, providing a vividly clear sound and a satisfactory balance. The booklet notes contain most of the necessary information without especially holding my interest.

Michael Cookson


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