Trio Cascades

Onslow: Piano Trios, Vol. 1

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George Onslow was of English descent, was trained by Bohemian-Austrian composers (Reicha and Dussek), and worked for most of his life in France. The second of these three nationalities is the most audible in his music, which has few French traits. Indeed, in the opera-dominated French musical world of the early nineteenth century, he would have had few local models. For a time, Onslow's name showed up on musical monuments with Beethoven's and Mendelssohn's, but he later fell out of favor and was almost forgotten. One can understand both these developments; Onslow's craftsmanship, as revealed in these two piano trios from 1818 and 1824, is superb, and to audiences freshly immersed in Beethoven's expansion of the language of music he must have seemed nearly Beethoven's equal. It wasn't until later that audiences realized how Beethoven's personal struggles, writ large, became the ideas of nineteenth century culture, whereas Onslow's music signified little of a personal nature. Onslow's two trios are modeled on Beethoven's piano trios in many respects. The balance among the instruments is the same: the piano part is written for a virtuoso, but it is artfully enough balanced with the violin and cello that the music never comes off sounding like an accompanied piano sonata. In each Onslow trio, outer sonata-form movements surround a bumptious minuet (which despite the old-fashioned name is really a scherzo in each case) with a dramatically contrasting central episode and a slow movement with a big tune. Onslow is at his best in the inner movements, where his Bohemian models perhaps lend his music rhythmic vigor. The minuet of the Piano Trio, Op. 27, starts out at a high level of excitement and maintains it with inventive rhythmic shifts, and the Andante con variazioni of the Piano Trio, Op. 14/2, intriguingly takes a folk song of the Auvergne region as its basic material. Every detail is in place in the outer movements, but there is a certain lack of urgency to the proceedings. The appropriately German-French Trio Cascades delivers performances that go beyond competent to involved, and the disc is certainly recommended to those with an interest in French musical life of the nineteenth century.

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