GEORGE ONSLOW: Complete Chamber Music with Winds – Ens. Initium/Ens. Contraste – Timpani (2)

by | Dec 2, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews

GEORGE ONSLOW: Complete Chamber Music with Winds = Sextet Op. 30, for flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, double bass, and piano; Septet Op. 79, for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, double bass, and piano; Nonet Op. 77, for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, and double bass; Quintet Op. 81, for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn – Ensemble Initium / Ensemble Contraste – Timpani  2C2185 (2 discs), 74:48; 59:11 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
The French composer George Onslow (1784-1853), whose English father gave him his un-French-sounding name, is one of those composers whose symphonies languish in the trough between the twin crests of Beethoven-Schubert Classicism and Mendelssohn-Schumann Romanticism. In fact, as a symphonic composer Onslow is lumped with Ferdinand Ries, Johann Wilms, Friedrich Fesca, and Louis Spohr as Beethoven imitators, composers who marked time in the dark period before the symphony was reinvented as a Romantic expressive vehicle built on formal principles of the Classical era. Fortunately for music lovers, recording companies have given us the opportunity to get acquainted with these works and learn that there are indeed treasures among them.
Onslow is sometime referred to as the French Beethoven (which title Gounod later bestowed on Saint-Saëns), and there’s some rightness to the idea given that in a country where composers’ prime directive was to write operas, Onslow spent most of his creative energies on instrumental compositions, among them thirty-six string quintets and thirty-four string quartets. In their day, these works were rated highly and provided models for other composers; Schubert is supposed to have followed the Onslow model for his great String Quintet in C Major.
Onslow was a dazzling pianist, having studied with the most forward-thinking virtuosos of the day, including Johann Baptist Cramer and Jan Ladislav Dussek, so it’s not surprising that a brilliant role for the piano is often worked into Onslow’s chamber music. He studied composition with Anton Reicha, so it’s equally surprising that Onslow devoted so little time to chamber music for winds, Reicha’s great specialty. Most of Onslow’s wind chamber music comes toward the end of his career, the Sextet Op. 30 of 1825 being the only exception to this rule. These two Timpani CDs contain all of Onslow’s works for winds except the Sextet, Op. 77 bis, for winds and piano, which is a transcription of the Nonet Op. 77. The Sextet is wisely omitted from the current collection.
Despite the fact that there’s a gap of twenty-four years between Onslow’s Op. 30 and Op. 77, the late works with winds don’t forge terribly far into Romantic territory. I was surprised to find that the bubbly finale of the Quintet Op. 81 from the 1850s sounds a lot like a finale from one of his teacher Reicha’s famous quintets. It’s a work of freshness and optimism despite coming at a time when Onslow’s health was in decline. It’s also a work of Classical poise and restraint, the minor-key slow movement plumbing greater emotional depths than the other three penny-bright movements.
The Septet Op. 79 of 1849 has the easy, purling-stream mellifluous nature of Berwald’s Septet written twenty-one years before, and some of the writing is very reminiscent of the Swedish composer’s work, though Berwald’s scoring, modeled on that of Beethoven’s Septet, is for winds and strings, no piano. There are other touches here and there in the works on these CDs that indicate Onslow was familiar with Berwald’s distinctive chamber music. One big difference between them is the brilliance of Onslow’s piano writing. Berwald, a violinist, wrote in a safe, old-fashioned style for piano, but Onslow throws any number of hurdles at the pianist in both the Sextet and Septet. And there is a clear evolution of Onslow’s piano writing between Op. 30 and Op. 79. The piano part in the Sextet might have been written by Hummel or Kalkbrenner. There’s less of surface brilliance, more of expressivity in the piano part of the Septet, showing the influence that the chamber music of Mendelssohn and Schumann must have had on Onslow.
Still, over all, Onslow’s chamber music with winds is decidedly old-fashioned, but it’s so skillfully and attractively written that you’ll probably just want to forget when the music was composed and enjoy it on its own terms. Perhaps the most appealing work is the Nonet, which has symphonic sweep to it, as well as a seriousness of musical expression that the other works on this program don’t share. There’s Mendelssohnian bravura in the scherzo, Beethovenian humor alternating with patrician calm in the theme-and-variations slow movement. The outer movements have an emotional complexity and drama that suggest there’s some justice in Onslow’s claim to the title of the French Beethoven.
I really like what the combined forces of Ensemble Initium and Ensemble Contraste do for Onslow. Both fairly new ensembles, these groups seem to have different artistic mandates. Ensemble Initium, founded at the Paris Conservatoire, is apparently committed to fairly traditional chamber-music projects, while Ensemble Contraste swings somewhat more, being “a melting-pot for new ideas and surprising experiments. . .placing the audience at the centre of its artistic endeavors, thus favouring the birth of genuine spectacles such as Classic Tango, Songs, Masques, and La Belle et la Bête.” Despite their different aesthetic approaches, the groups work well together: what I hear in Onslow’s music, described above, is what they hear, capturing as they do the essence of this composer who stood at the cusp of musical change. The playing is elegant, poised, attuned to the turns of phrase that in Onslow sometimes represent an emotional hairpin turn in the manner of Schubert. Timpani’s sound is very fine, too—bright but no way strident, with good bass response and the warmth that an acoustically friendly space imparts. This is an easy recommendation.
—Lee Passarella

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