Classical CD Reviews

SPOHR: Piano Sonata in A-flat Major; Rondoletto in G Major; ONSLOW: Piano Sonata in C Minor; Six Pieces; Toccata in C Major – Howard Shelley, p. – Hyperion

Howard Shelley explores the infrequent keyboard works of Louis Spohr and Georges Onslow, pieces that lie between the salon and the concert hall.

Published on October 12, 2012

SPOHR: Piano Sonata in A-flat Major; Rondoletto in G Major; ONSLOW: Piano Sonata in C Minor; Six Pieces; Toccata in C Major – Howard Shelley, p. – Hyperion

SPOHR: Piano Sonata in A-flat Major, Op. 125; Rondoletto in G Major, Op. 149; ONSLOW: Piano Sonata in C Minor, Op. 2; Six Pieces; Toccata in C Major, Op. 6 – Howard Shelley, piano – Hyperion CDA67947, 78:16 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

British pianist-conductor Howard Shelley bestows an album (rec. 14-15 November 2011)  of musical keyboard anomalies upon us, with piano music by Louis Spohr (1784-1859), almost exclusively known for his violin and chamber music opera; and Frenchman Georges Onslow (1784-1853), whose music, though admired by Schumann and Mendelssohn, has fallen into virtual obscurity. Mendelssohn, moreover, was the dedicatee of Spohr’s only Piano Sonata in A-flat Major (1843), a piece that had surpassed Spohr’s earlier, unidiomatic piano pieces that had won but cool approval from Chopin.

The relatively ingenuous Spohr Piano Sonata, in four traditional movements, opens with an Allegro moderato in salon style, the cantabile melody pleasant if uninspired, the runs and filigree rather a series of pirouettes and resonant arpeggios that smack of decorative Weber.  Occasionally, the rhetorical, broken phrases anticipate the middle of the Brahms F Minor Sonata scherzo. The second movement, Romanze, opens in F Minor and plays like a song without words. If a moment of Bellini seems to insinuate itself, the effect is deliberate. The spirit of Haydn, even Beethoven, intrudes into the C Minor Scherzo, a rather brittle series of brisk gestures and syncopes that modulate into a distant E Major. The trio section imitates early Chopin in its metrical variety. The Finale: Allegretto takes a cue from Beethoven and avoids A-flat Major for some time. Again, the lightweight filigree conveys the salon rather the concert hall. Cross-rhythms and improvisatory flights of fancy enter the mix of contredanse and capriccio, another Weber-like potpourri of styles.

The 1848 Rondoletto by Spohr came as a response to request from Charlotte Moscheles for a piano miniature. The somewhat Schumann-esque figures move agitato into several registers, mostly in broken figures. The middle part moves into minor keys. A false cadence leads to a slightly deferred coda.

Georges Onslow might have been dubbed “the French Beethoven,” but at this point in time, his rather prolific output has been consigned to historical footnotes, despite his having studied with Dussek and Cramer.  The Sonata in C Minor (1807) opts for restraint where Beethoven exerts tempestuous passion. The musical means in the opening Allegro maestoso seem adept enough in the use of modulations and canonic imitation. The development section reminds us of Schubert, but Onslow’s melodic gift cannot compete with Schubert’s magic, rather settling for bravura runs and rambling arpeggios that resolve into an optimistically liquid C Major. Quick grace notes insert themselves in the course of the C Minor Menuetto, rife with canonic imitation. The trio assumes the mode of a metrically askew Schubert laendler, undecided between F Minor and A-flat Major.

A slow march tune with a trill provides the source for the five variations of his Andante con variazioni that proceed in a standard manner we know from Haydn, Hummel, and Beethoven. The glittery brilliance of the lion’s share of the variants has one foil, in the fourth variation, in minor. The fifth variant might hearken to Rameau’s A Minor Gavotte and Variations as a model. The Haydn sensibility reigns in the sixth variation, the bass line quite defined and richly hued, moving with chromatic intricacy to the coda. The 6/8 Pastorale: Allegro piles the glitter higher, a flurry of canons and perpetual runs, easily attributable to bravura Mendelssohn.

Onslow’s Six Pieces (c. 1848) serve as his answer to Schubert’s Moments musicaux, although they are not so deep. They maintain their harmonic interest within the frame of unassuming salon music. The No. 2 in A Major certainly bears the stamp of a Mendelssohn Song without Words. The watery No. 3 in A-flat Major could be construed as florid MacDowell. The B-flat Minor No. 4 briefly light up a passionate spark that borrows from Chopin or Schubert waltz form. The last two E Major pieces are cantabile studies, the first soft and unassumingly brief, the second an opus of some substance. The Toccata in C Major, Op. 6 (1811) quite seriously points to the later Schumann Toccata in the same key (his Op. 7), with the same demands on articulated wrist and forearm propulsion that we must wonder if the arch Romantic composer well knew this piece. A study in leggiero fortitude, Onslow’s self-proclaimed Caprice could serve as a natural competition piece for burgeoning virtuosi as well a lovely display piece for current master Howard Shelley.

—Gary Lemco

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