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George ONSLOW (1784-1853)
String Quintets Volume 2
String Quintet No. 10 in F minor, Op. 32 (1827) [29:41]
String Quintet No. 22 in E flat major, Op. 57 (1836) [35:59]
Elan Quintet (Benjamin Scherer, Lelia Iancovici (violins), Julia Chu-Ying Hu (viola), Dmitri Tsirin (cello), Matthew Baker (double bass))
rec. 2016, Auditorio de Rafelbunyol, Valencia, Spain
World premiere recordings
NAXOS 8.573689 [65:48]

A cursory glance at the list of George Onslow’s complete works with opus number is most revealing. In a career spanning 45 years, 1806-1851, all but three among 83 numbered pieces are chamber or piano works. The exceptions are his first, second and fourth symphonies. Even the third (without opus number) is an expansion of the F minor quintet included here. In the two decades between 1826 and 1846, notwithstanding the first two symphonies (and the 1837 comic opera Le Duc de Guise), Onslow seems to have been exclusively devoted to the production of quartets and quintets for strings. In all, there are 36 of the former listed, and 34 of the latter. Of course, statistics do not tell the whole story, but I find it fascinating that any composer could confine themselves for so long to one niche genre. In fact, as has been well documented in other reviews on this site (and elsewhere) Onslow was a gentleman composer of aristocratic Anglo-French stock, so there was little pressure on him to make a living from composition. He also was a self-taught cellist. One impulse may have been to produce music he could perform with his own coterie of gifted string-playing amateurs.

Given these unusual circumstances, one is bound to wonder whether these string chamber works are actually any good. In fact, Onslow’s output can hardly be said to have been ignored by the record companies. Over the years, crack groups like the Mandelring Quartet, the Quatuor Diotima and L’Archibudelli have been sufficiently moved to record entire discs of Onslow; Howard Shelley recorded an early piano sonata for Hyperion; the four symphonies are available on a pair of CPO discs. Now the prodigiously talented Elan Quintet have picked up the baton. Indeed, they plan to record all of Onslow’s string quintets for Naxos.

The present issue is Volume 2. I have not listened to its predecessor, but on the basis of these performances (and the superb recording) I will be seeking it out urgently. As for the music: I feel that it really does have something to say. Onslow writes so naturally for the quintet. An abundance of attractive melodic ideas, modulations and developments—far from predictable or formulaic—hints at profundity in the slow movements which never seem contrived but instead haunt and intrigue. The examples on this coupling are worth getting to know well, and each repeated play throws up elements one missed the last time. An added attraction is the unusual inclusion of the double-bass instead of the usual second viola or cello. This has the effect of extending the tonal range of a traditional quintet into something unfamiliar and novel. I am not sure how this will seem when we hit Volume 17 of the series, but the consistent quality of Onslow’s writing in these two works at the very least pricks one’s curiosity.

The F minor Quintet Op. 32 begins with a rising double bass phrase which introduces a slow, rather ominous prelude. This morphs into the jaunty tune upon which the Allegro section of this first movement is built. It is irresistible. The spirit of early Beethoven (who died in the year of its composition) is never far away, but this is refracted through a prism of Gallic clarity and grace. One is struck by the keen ensemble of the Elan Quintet. Their enjoyment of this music is palpable and contagious. The pithy notes by Katy Hamilton emphasise the classical tenderness projected in the central movements. Although they provide a contrast to the more dramatic elements of the outer panels, a keen listener cannot fail to be impressed by the coherence of the whole work. In fact, the third movement, an unconventional minuet, appears to go off in any number of unexpected harmonic directions before finding its way back to the start. The final Allegro agitato is a skittering roller-coaster with the emphasis on the agitato. I detect a winning restlessness in this music which nonetheless gets where it needs to go with satisfying assurance. It also seems at least to point towards the stylistic regions that the later coupling seems to occupy. As a postscript, the greater range of colour afforded by the presence of the bass in this particular work lends it a tangible orchestral flavour. That is perhaps why Onslow decided to expand it in 1833 into his Symphony No. 3 (review).

The later Quintet in E flat major Op. 57 dates from 1836, the midpoint of Onslow’s twenty year quartet and quintet frenzy. It begins with a questioning pizzicato phrase which gives way to a brief, gnomic quietude before melting into a delightful Schubertian Allegro non tanto vivace. The bass colours and textures further prompt reminiscence of the “Trout” Quintet. The touching G minor Adagio taps into a well of melancholy which provides an emotional counterpoint to the levity of the first movement. The jolly tune that dominates the Scherzo is tossed about most democratically among the whole ensemble. This quintet is rounded off by a graceful and varied Allegretto grazioso. The sweet sadness of the slow movement is further evoked by the dolce melody with opens this finale before settling upon more assured melodic and harmonic territory which leads to an upbeat and decisive coda.

The notes confirm that the giants such as Schumann and Berlioz regarded Onslow as far more than a peripheral figure. On the evidence of these sparkling performances it is easy to see why. I hope that Naxos can see their ambitious plan for the other quintets through. With the advocacy of the Elan Quintet there will, I am sure, be treats aplenty to savour. I for one will be wasting little time in picking up Volume 1 and digging up other recordings of the chamber output of this intriguing figure.

Richard Hanlon

Previous review: David Barker



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