Written in the wake of his first hearing of Beethoven’s late Quartets,
in Paris, the three String Quartets, opp. 54, 55
are supposed to represent Onslow’s response to the German’s works.
Such was obviously Onslow’s surprise at Beethoven’s works that
the Quartet, op.54
is hilarious! It’s full of the most
wonderful musical jokes and it shows, as do the other two works
under discussion here, a very free hand in the use of chromaticism.
The first movement of opus 55
is all fire and passion,
tempered by quieter moments of repose, and the following scherzo
is skittish, with a very exciting use of silence, to great dramatic
effect, with a trio, which appears twice, of total humour,. This
is marvellous stuff indeed and totally compelling. A richly scored
slow movement, full of passion and longing, gives way to a finale
of great spirit, urgency and energy, much in the manner of the
first movement, and abrupt silences slice across the music creating
great excitement. This is a wonderful quartet and deserves to
be heard often. Although the opus 56 Quartet
has some of
the fire of the other two works on this disk, there is more elegance
to the music. This is a splendid achievement of the melding of
violent music with the tenderest of ideas, until the finale which
is a real barnstorming effort.
The performances of the Diotima Quartet are as perfect as one
could wish – their advocacy, and obvious delight in this music,
is evident in every bar, and they observe every repeat. Although
Onslow was called the French Beethoven, there’s much more to him
that being a mere torch-carrier and it’s good to have such a marvellous
exposition of his music as this. The sound is crisp and clear
and the presentation in a gatefold sleeve, with a booklet which
slips nicely into the inside of the front portion, is very attractive.
This is well worth having for anyone interested in chamber music,
in what happened after Beethoven, or simply for anyone who enjoys
Whilst hunting, in 1829, Onslow was badly injured, and could have
died from his wounds, but suffered only - as if “only” is a good
thing for a composer in this case - deafness in his left ear.
This incident inspired the second, third and fourth movements
of his String Quintet, op.38
, to which he gave the nickname
. This is a dramatic work, but then much of Onslow’s
chamber music is dramatic for he managed to marry the drama of
the opera – he did live in an “Opera Mad France” – and chamber
music. This Quintet
is an expansive work with a very long
first movement. The construction, as in all Onslow’s music, is
tight and to the point – he never wastes a note, and it is well
laid out for the instruments. The Piano Quintet
is a later
work and more romantic in feel and relaxed.
The performances by the Ensemble Monsolo and François–Joël Thiollier
are very fine, but lack the passion and fire of the Diotima Quartet.
The sound isn’t as good as on the Naïve disk – being slightly
boxy and restricted, but it is still clear, without a rich bloom.
Also, the Naïve disk achieves a miraculous pianissimo which is
lacking on the Polymnie recording. However, despite these small
points this is a disk well worth having.
Three cheers for both disks for they serve to further illuminate
our understanding of a too long forgotten composer. I’ve been
a fan of Onslow for many years and I hope that he is finally finding
a place in the affections of many others. He deserves to.