“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
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
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.
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
“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
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.