Georges Onslow: Piano Trios

Trio Bamberg

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Georges Onslow: Piano Trios Review

by Patsy Morita

George Onslow is one of those composers whose fame unfortunately faded after his death. As a further insult to his reputation, even by the end of his career, the renown of his music was eclipsed by that of Beethoven's, Mendelssohn's, and others. At a time when large stage and orchestral works were all the rage in France, his strength was his chamber music -- especially string quartets and quintets -- which is most frequently compared to that of Beethoven, which, in turn, explains why he was more well known in Germany and Austria than in his home country. The New Grove says Onslow's music was never widely popular in France because it was considered "erudite and serious." However, the performance here of two of his 10 piano trios by Trio Bamberg, while not quite the opposite of "erudite and serious," does present Onslow's music as well written for the ensemble; balanced between formal, Classical elegance and Romantic emotionalism; and even occasionally playful. Both trios seem to follow a pattern of sonata-form first movement, second movement with cantabile lines in it somewhere, a minuet that isn't a minuet, and a final movement with more drama than the rest of the work. The Trio No. 7, Op. 20, in particular is reminiscent of Beethoven. Its first Allegro opens with declamatory chords and a long, downward piano scale, and scalar movement is used frequently in it. Second is a set of variations that ends with a dramatic variation and a plain, by comparison, and playful coda. The "minuet" is more a teasing folk dance than a stately dance, and the finale's theme is almost the same as the third movement of Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 4, Op. 23. Onslow's Trio No. 8, Op. 26, opens with an Allegro espressivo that seems to draw back from emotional intensity in favor of gentler lyricism. The second movement uses singing countermelodies as a response to a main theme with understated "ta-da" attitude, and this trio's "minuet" is really a Mendelssohn scherzo in disguise. Trio Bamberg really enjoys the final Allegro agitato, playing with vigor, but also with gracefulness. On the whole, the Trio plays Onslow's music with good energy or charming suavity as needed, giving it an air of French refinement despite its German leanings. The disc is also very well recorded, allowing the lowest notes of the cello and piano to resound richly. It's a modest, but very good introduction to neglected music of a neglected composer.

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