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George ONSLOW (1784-1853)
String Quintet No. 20 in D minor, op. 45 (1831) [31:22]
String Quintet No. 26 in C minor, op. 67 (1845) [33:38]
Elan Quintet (Benjamin Scherer, Lelia Iancovici (violins), Julia Chu-Ying Hu (viola), Dmitri Tsirin (cello), Matthew Baker (double bass))
rec. December 2015, Auditorio de Rafelbunyol, Valencia, Spain
Premiere recording (op. 45) NAXOS 8.573600 [65:06]
Naxos begins another ambitious series – there are 34 of Onslow’s quintets – and on the evidence of this first volume, they are onto something very good. The German label MDG began a similar series more than decade ago, but as the third volume was released in 2006, and is no longer available, it would seem that they lost interest (reviews of Volume 2 ~ Volume 3).
Onslow’s first name is rather problematic: is it is the British George or the French Georges? Naxos has opted for the latter here and in their earlier release of his cello sonatas (review). This does seem to be the minority view, even in France: the article on this site, written by a French biographer uses the British version. Therefore, I have done similarly in the header.
For a fuller biography, I refer you to the above article, but a brief summary is appropriate here as Onslow is not a well-known name these days, despite the fame he enjoyed during his lifetime. He was born in France to an English father and French mother. His father had been forced to leave England due to a scandal but then was caught up in the French Revolution, and moved again. This led him back to London, where George, the eldest son, studied with Dussek and Cramer. Despite all these upheavals, Onslow’s family remained sufficiently wealthy for him to choose music as a vocation, without the need to make a living from it. Back in France, he studied with Reicha, and before long, was being compared to the greats, no less than Berlioz saying that “since the death of Beethoven, he is the one who holds the sceptre of instrumental music”. Among his many German admirers were Schumann and Mendelssohn.
In the early-mid 1800s, the string quintet was very much in the shadow of the quartet. Boccherini had written numerous quintets, principally with a second cello, Mozart six with two violas, and there's the greatest of them all, the Schubert, but it was unknown at this time; its first performance was in Vienna in 1850. Onslow’s first quintets followed the Boccherini model but his later ones provided an optional scoring where the second cello is replaced by double bass, as we have here. The reason for this was purely by chance: on a visit to London to premiere one of his quintets, the second cellist dropped out at short notice. It was suggested that the great double bassist Domenico Dragonetti, who was also performing, could step into the breach. While Onslow didn’t like the idea, he did agree, and within a few bars, was so impressed he began applauding. After that he supplied the majority of his quintets with the alternative parts.
What of the works themselves? The Beethoven references, especially the nickname of “the French Beethoven” given to him are not particularly helpful; are such comparisons ever kind to either party? Onslow’s music does not have the range of emotions that overflow from Beethoven’s. However, it does have drama, humour, lovely melodies and rhythmic contrasts that make the half hour of each piece rush by. There is no sense of padding or note-spinning; I cannot say that of many unsung works. The double bass, which gets to begin the D minor work by itself, adds an appealingly dark timbre to the music. The C minor is probably the pick of the two, with a mercurial Scherzo and an Allegretto finale, quite original both in its restrained tempo, and the edgy reserve that is carried through its pages. Onslow builds up the tension a number of times, only to back away from the climax until the very end.
The Elan Quintet are a Spanish-based ensemble, formed from players in the opera orchestra in Valencia. I cannot fault their playing: their tonal quality is ravishing, their ensemble perfect. The engineers have done a very fine job as well, while the booklet notes are typical of the label. I imagine that the first page consisting of biographical information will be reused in future volumes, and only commentary on the individual works will vary.
I volunteered to review this more from curiosity, and because it had not been picked up by anyone else the first time the monthly list was sent around. I am so glad I did, and I will be at the head of the queue for Volume 2. One sobering thought is that these works seem all to be of a similar length, so this is going to be a rather extended journey, but one, it would seem, very much worth going the distance.