Onslow: Nonet, Quintet / Ma'alot Quintet, Mandelring Quartet

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ONSLOW Nonet in a, op. 77. String Quintet No. 19 in c, op. 44 Ma’alot Qnt; Mandelring Qrt cpo 777 151 (65:41)

“Their emotional coolness and blandness created few problems of interpretation or emotional response, and this seems to have enhanced their appeal to the amateur.” Thus wrote Benedict Sarnaker in my New Grove about Onslow’s chamber music. You can almost visualize the sneer on his face with the utterance of that last word. Amateurs! What do they know about music-making, anyway? Don’t they understand that music, like that other great art form, love, should only be made by skilled professionals?

But then we find Martin Anderson ( Fanfare 27:1) remarking, “There’s something enormously satisfying about the music of George Onslow,” and Colin Anderson ( Fanfare 28:1) evidently agrees in reviewing a pair of string quintets: “This lyrical, unpretentious, and skillfully written music is beautifully played and recorded.”

I find myself coming down firmly on the side of Fanfare ’s other reviewers over this one. Though I can’t claim to have followed Onslow from his earliest efforts (written before his brief tutelage with Reicha, when he was still a piano student of Cramer), his mature chamber works display personality, taste, and a technical mastery that can lead to some inventive surprises. Perhaps Sarnaker approached his composer with unwarranted expectations—not unlike those of a person who listens for the first time to The Art of the Fugue expecting great melody. Regardless, if this album is anything to judge by, then Onslow wasn’t dull, and his “amateurs” would have been very fine musicians, indeed.

Consider the Nonet, dedicated to Albert von Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha, otherwise known as Victoria’s Prince Albert. (The royal composer had sent a luxuriously bound copy of his own music to Onslow. The latter was too much a gentleman not to reply in kind.) Its Scherzo is a breathless piece playing a game of misplaced beats, chattering themes, and contrapuntal ingenuity. The central trio gives an attractively spacious and Romantic melody first to the French horn, then to the first violin. The set of variations that take the place of the usual andante are exquisitely idiomatic for each instrument, though only in the last pair of variations do they reveal the transformative potential of the theme. The first movement does seem a bit bland, at least until the development section kicks in; but then I can’t help thinking that both the finale and it suffer from an unvarying sweetness of approach from the performers, not completely appropriate to the material at hand.

Perhaps this was an interpretative decision of the Ma’alot Quintet, or a reflection of the way both ensembles viewed that particular work. Certainly the opening movement of the Quintet No. 19, which shares a tempo indication with the similarly placed movement in the Nonet (Allegro spirituoso), lacked nothing in energy and contrapuntal severity. The same qualities prevail in the Scherzo, while Onslow’s interjection of a very Italianate central section in 6/8 was a masterstroke. Here, I think the Mandelring players could have adapted a slightly slower tempo than in the Scherzo proper. The third movement inverted the ordering of the second: a curiously light and hesitant pair of outer sections encompassing a furiously driven middle section. That same fury dominated the finale, a movement of dramatic power and eloquence. Emotionally cool? Not a chance.

Technically, both ensembles are up to par. I was impressed in particular by the Mandelring players’ precise attacks and intimate ensemble work in the Quintet’s opening movement and finale. They demonstrate a genuine affection for these pieces, and a belief in their ability to impress modern listeners. Factor in cpo’s lifelike sound, as well, and I think you will be impressed too.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 777151-2

  • UPC: 761203715121

  • Label: CPO

  • Composer: Georges Onslow

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Ma'alot Quintet, Mandelring String Quartet

  • Performer: Bernhard Schmidt, Christian Wetzel, Christina Fassbender, Nanette Schmidt, Roland Glassl, Sebastian Schmidt, Ulf-Guido Schäfer, Volker Grewel, Volker Tessmann, Wolfgang Güttler