From his name alone, you might well think that Onslow was an English composer. In fact, André George Louis Onslow – to give him his full name – was a French composer but of English descent. Some sources add a final ‘s’ to George in the Gallic manner. Unlike some of his other French contemporaries, he was fortunate, and financially able enough to pursue a path more akin to Romantic colleagues in Germany, where his music had a strong following as, indeed, it also had in England. He wrote four symphonies and operas, but his principal output was in chamber music. Despite being held in high esteem by many of the critics of the day, his reputation declined swiftly after his death, though it is now being revived largely through the CD medium.
Born in Clermont-Ferrand, the son of an English father, and grandson of the first Earl of Onslow, and a French mother, Marie Rosalie de Bourdeilles de Brantôme, Onslow published his set of three sonatas for cello and piano in 1820. At the time, he was still largely unknown in his homeland, while his first chamber works had already won hearts in Germany. He thus came of age in the shadow of Beethoven, and was often later referred to as the ‘French Beethoven’. The German master had already written his first two cello sonatas in 1796, no. 3 followed in 1808, while the last two were composed simultaneously in 1815, and published two years later. Onslow broke away from the prevailing French tradition, taking his lead from Beethoven, in writing sonatas where both cello and piano were equal protagonists in the musical argument, rather than giving the former a somewhat subsidiary, accompanying role. While Onslow has often been likened to Beethoven, as well as the occasional fleeting references to the likes of Mozart, Haydn, Spohr and Mendelssohn, in some of his music, and certainly on the present CD, it’s not difficult to detect Schubert particularly with his harmonic progressions. There's even a pianistic sophistication in the writing that casts more than a nod in the direction of Chopin.
Given the relative obscurity of this particular repertoire, it comes as quite a surprise to find the same three sonatas already issued on Naxos (8.572830) some eighteen months earlier, and the subject of a review
by Brian Reinhart. Unlike the Mirare pair – Emmanuel Jacques (cello) and Maude Gratton (piano), who are both French – the Naxos team of Maria Kliegel and Nina Tichman respectively, is German-American.
Even before listening to either CD, there’s a slight physical difference. While Naxos keeps to the tried-and-tested jewel-case design, with a separate booklet, the French label goes for an all-in-one hard-card enclosure, with an attached booklet, and plastic housing securing the disc.
On the inside there is a more substantial distinction. The Naxos pairing uses a conventional grand piano, whereas the Mirare team prefers a seemingly more authentic London-made John Broadwood & Sons instrument, dating from 1822, with the cello by Jacques Boquay, Paris, 1726.
Notwithstanding the obvious difference in timbre between the two recordings, Mirare also tinkers with the playing order. In the heady days of vinyl, playing-order was sometimes changed to optimize the amount of music that could reasonably be stored on one side of an LP. This issue does not obtain with a single CD, where only the overall capacity figures. While Naxos presents the three sonatas of Op. 16 in order, Mirare opens with No. 2, following on with No. 1, and then No. 3.
True the second sonata of the set is more substantial than the other two and has four movements rather than three. It’s also a minor-key work and in one of Beethoven’s favourite keys, too – C minor. That said, the first of the set still makes a more immediate opening impact, with its all-round lighter feel and eminently tuneful demeanour. This is particularly true of the central ‘Andante’, so there seems no obvious reason for the change of order. Julie Oustinoff in her sleeve notes, translated into English by Charles Johnston from the original French text, makes no mention of this either.
It could appear somewhat uncharitable to suggest that the playing at the dramatic start of the second sonata seems better controlled than at the start of the first sonata, particularly from the cellist. This might have prompted the change in running order. Be that as it may, the charming third sonata is shorter and lighter in overall feel — the slow movement is essentially a preamble to the finale — until, say, the last movement. This, like Mendelssohn’s Italian
Symphony, is in A minor rather than the sonata’s overarching key of A major. It provides the ideal ‘finale’ to either previous coupling.
Irrespective of the initial sonata order, the playing and overall sound, especially with regard to balance between the instruments, stands head and shoulders above on the Naxos disc. This is clear from the very first note. Mirare’s cellist is an accomplished player but Naxos’s choice, Maria Kliegel, proclaimed by Mstislav Rostropovich as ‘The best cellist I have heard since Jacqueline du Pré’, really succeeds in bringing the music to life. True her reading might err more on the Romantic side but these are sonatas for cello and piano, not the other way around. Frankly Onslow’s writing – he was a cellist, too – is ripe for such treatment, especially with Nina Tichman’s sympathetic and first-rate support at the piano factored in.
If having the sound and projection of a contemporary Broadwood instrument is important then you might go for the French CD. However, given the top quality of the Naxos playing and recording, to say nothing of the fact that it’s a budget-priced CD, it really does make the Jacques and Gratton team on Mirare difficult to prefer.
Philip R Buttall