About this Recording
8.573600 - ONSLOW, G.: String Quintets, Vol. 1 - Nos. 20 and 26 (Elan Quintet)
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Georges Onslow (1784–1853)
String Quintets • 1: Nos. 20 and 26


Born in Clermont-Ferrand (west of Lyon) to a French mother and an English father, Georges Onslow was a gentleman composer and performer who was highly regarded for his musical talents in France, Germany and beyond during his lifetime. His father Edward (1758–1829), had been forced into quiet exile to France in 1781, having been part of a homosexual scandal—but within two years of arriving, he had married Marie-Rosalie de Bourdeilles de Brantôme and the couple were to have four children, of whom Georges was the eldest. Although the family remained in Clermont-Ferrand, the subsequent reconciliation between Edward and his family was to make it possible for Georges and his siblings to travel to England, and this only served to advance his musical ambitions. He visited London to study piano with several noted teachers, including Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760–1812) and Johann Baptist Cramer (1771–1858), and subsequently took lessons in composition with Anton Reicha (1770–1836) in Paris—a man who counted Beethoven, Salieri and Haydn among his friends and acquaintances. As Onslow developed a particular interest in writing for string chamber ensembles, he also learned the cello in order to be able to make music with friends.

Although he was an amateur (or rather, a ‘gentleman’) musician—in that he did not need to write and perform for a living, because of his noble heritage—Onslow was both highly accomplished and respected by many of his professional contemporaries. Both Berlioz and Schumann praised his works, with Schumann frequently mentioning him in the same breath as Mendelssohn as one of the successors to the string chamber legacy of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Onslow composed 36 string quartets, 34 string quintets, four symphonies, four operas, a number of songs, piano pieces, and a variety of other chamber works including sonatas, piano trios and wind ensembles. Much of this music was published during his lifetime, and three of the four operas were staged in Paris at the Opéra Comique. Whilst his connections and wealth must have made such feats a little easier (since he had no need to pander to public taste), the continuing popularity of his music and number of posthumous publications suggests that Onslow’s creative work was well admired by the musical world at large. Indeed, he was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, granted honorary membership of the London Philharmonic Society, and was particularly popular in German-speaking lands, with his works featuring in several major German music festivals.

Onslow’s considerable output for string quintet is particularly interesting given the relative lack of earlier models, and the flexibility of his instrumentation. The quartet was held to be the dominant ensemble type at the time, and imbued with a sense of aesthetic superiority by many writers who considered the balance of four voices to be particularly ideal. There were, however, several Italian composers who began exploring the quintet medium in the last few decades of the eighteenth century, chief among them Luigi Boccherini (1743–1805), who produced over 130 quintets between 1771 and 1802. The majority of Boccherini’s pieces were composed for two violins, one viola and two cellos (since he was himself a cellist). Other combinations, however, were possible: two violas instead of two cellos, for instance. Among Boccherini’s vast output are three pieces in which the balance of the string quartet instruments was left untouched, and a double bass simply added to the existing grouping. It is in this configuration—two violins, viola, cello, double bass—that we hear the two quintets of Onslow that are featured in this recording.

Onslow was initially very sceptical about the inclusion of the double bass in his ensemble. His early quintets either included two violas or two cellos, and it was only through a quirk of fate that he came to explore an alternative grouping. On a visit to London, he was involved in a soirée at which a new quintet of his (for two violins, viola and two cellos) was to be given for the first time. The second cellist failed to appear by the beginning of the event. Onslow’s friend, the journalist Léon Escudier, suggested that the part might be filled by Domenico Dragonetti (1763–1846), a virtuoso bassist who also happened to be involved in the performance. The composer was not impressed by the suggestion, convinced that the bass—despite the talent of its player—would not work within the ensemble texture. With no alternative, however, he asked Dragonetti to fill in the part, and was so impressed with the result that within just a few bars of the piece beginning, Onslow began to applaud. He subsequently composed four quintets for this configuration, and many of his other quintets were made available with supplementary parts in order to allow for variances of ensemble (with bass and viola parts being offered as alternatives for one of two cello lines). A complete edition of his quintets was published shortly after his death.

The String Quintet in D minor, Op. 45, was composed in 1831 for an ensemble featuring two cellos, with the option of substituting a double bass for the lower cello part. It is performed here with this substitution—which makes for a particularly striking opening gesture for solo double bass, before the rest of the ensemble joins in to present the chromatic first theme and its rather gentler counterpart. There is great dramatic intensity to both quintets, particularly in their outer movements, where Onslow makes effective use of sudden dynamic shifts and varied articulation for all players. He seems to challenge the notion of stringed instruments as being essentially lyrical in character, and his music is all the more exciting for it. Following the opening Allegro grandioso, we move to a second movement Menuetto. The music dances along despite its presto tempo, with players throwing melodic fragments around the ensemble. This sense of democratic musical sharing continues in the Andante cantabile movement which follows, full of warm writing for the lower strings and sinuous chromatic phrases. A particularly magical effect is achieved in the last few lines, where the music is briefly lifted from its home key of B flat major to B major, all the strings muted for the final phrases. The finale, marked Allegro innocente, recaptures something of the dark, brooding nature of the first movement, full of sudden outbursts and imitative writing across the ensemble.

The String Quintet in C minor, Op. 67, was published in 1845 and is given here in its original instrumental configuration. It was dedicated to Achille-Henri-Victor Gouffé (1804–1874), a highly-regarded double bassist who was responsible for realising supplementary bass parts for Onslow’s early quintets. We seem to begin almost halfway through a musical sentence in the slow Introduzione of the first movement, the initial uncertainty giving way to a series of grand, double-dotted rhythms. Dotted rhythms also permeate the Molto moderato e grandioso which follows, in which the music moves abruptly between major and minor, and the drama is heightened by repeated use of diminished seventh chords. This is followed by a fast second movement, a Scherzo replete with off-beats and hemiolas, scampering staccato quavers, pizzicatos and harmonics. The Andante third movement provides a moment of respite and gentleness, and gives an opportunity for lyricism—particularly for the first violin and cello, which are certainly the most dominant parts throughout this Quintet. The finale is particularly effective in its confounding of dramatic expectations, seeming to approach a climax several times only to fade away, before we are finally granted an energetic final page, in which all parts are to be played tutta forza.

Katy Hamilton

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