George ONSLOW (1784-1853)
Complete Piano Trios - Vols. 3 and 4

Piano Trio, Op. 20 (1822) [28:42]
Piano Trio, Op. 3 No. 1 (1805) [23:41]
Piano Trio, Op. 14 No. 1 (1819) [21:53]
CD 2
Piano Trio, Op. 26 (1824) [30:41]
Piano Trio, Op. 14 No. 3 (1819) [19:44]
Piano Trio, Op. 3 No. 3 (1805) [24:53]
Trio Cascades
rec. Stadthalle Meinerzhagen, 2004-5
CPO 777 232-2 [74:24 + 75:25]
The CD boom of the 1990s and 2000s proved a blessing for a number of hitherto obscure composers, as producers scrambled to unearth fresh repertoire. The works of the English-French-German composer George Onslow - English by heritage, French by birth, German by residence and training - particularly those from his extensive catalogue of chamber music, have thus come to light.
These trios are all, at the very least, well-wrought constructions exemplifying the tuneful and energetic formalism of the late Classical era. There's more than a whiff of middle-period Beethoven in the bounding rhythmic impetus, the interplay of short motifs, and, in the dignified slow movements, the serene, concentrated breadth. The cello doubles the piano's bass line much of the time, as in Haydn's trios, but it takes on more ambitious duties as well: forming closely spaced suspensions with the violin in the second subject of Op. 26, No. 1, for example, or tossing motifs back and forth with the other instruments. Harmonies are fully fleshed out, and the basic sonority is sturdy, though the composer finds room for variety - note the delicacy and clear, open texture in the Trio of Op. 3, No. 1. There's melodic variety, too: note the contrast between the dramatically charged main theme and the skipping second subject in the Finale of Op. 3, No. 3. The Finale of Op. 20 brings a sense of operatic drama.
There are hints, here and there, of musical developments to come. In the Introduzione of Op. 3, No. 1 - a separate movement, ushering in a sonata-form Allegro - the sounding of sustained single tones points, not only to the later Beethoven, but even to Liszt. Op. 26, No. 1 begins with a ruminative melancholy suggesting Schumann, though the clean contours and emphatic cadences hold the piece firmly within Classical bounds. Adventurous, even ambiguous harmonies crop up in Op. 3, No. 1, in the finale and, atypically, in the otherwise standard-issue Minuetto. Such passages are a reminder that the line between Beethoven and the Romantics is porous rather than sharply drawn.
At first, Katrina Schulz's straightish, restrained violin tones at the start of Op. 20 suggested that the Trio Cascades might be a "period" ensemble. In fact, it's a modern-instrument group, and the restraint is simply Schulz's way of handling secondary parts: the first two movements of Op. 3, number 3 give her particular opportunities to soar vibrantly, and she takes advantage of them. Cellist Inka Ehlert plays out and recedes in a similar manner, while Thomas Palm's pianism is beyond reproach. The performances take in numerous sensitive details: note the graceful handling of the key shifts in the second subject of Op. 3, No. 3; or the pivot "on a dime" from agitation to lyricism at 2:21 of the Finale of Op. 26. The quick movements, however turbulent, always have time to breathe.
A few wrinkles, however, haven't quite been ironed out. At the start of some passages, scansion can be unclear - as in the Trio in Op. 20 and the Finale of Op. 26; and, in the Allegro of Op. 3, No 1, both string players have trouble making sense out of the little turn in the second theme. The Andante grazioso of Op. 14, No. 1 sings simply, but perhaps isn't quite grazioso. The quick runs in the finale of Op. 14, No. 3 pick up speed in a way that sounds neither intentional nor helpful.
Still, these basically excellent performances merit a strong recommendation, and not just to devotees of the Classical.
Stephen Francis Vasta

These excellent performances merit a strong recommendation.