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Louis Spohr, George Onslow: Nonets

Spohr / Onslow / Osmosis / Clark
Release Date: 01/11/2011 
Label:  Ramee   Catalog #: 1007   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Georges OnslowLouis Spohr
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Osmosis (Classical)
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 9 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SPOHR Nonet. ONSLOW Nonet Osmosis (period instruments) RAMÉE RAM 1007 (69:03)

I’m not sure whether to start this review with a disclaimer or with an expression of unexpected delight. The former would state that, while I recognize the usefulness and validity of performing music of the 18th and 19th centuries on period instruments, I am not much taken with the actual sounds generally Read more produced by those instruments, particularly winds, which are my specialty. I readily acknowledge that, for example, hearing the opening of the development of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata on a fortepiano helps us understand why the extremely low, thick chord voicings are plausible and not necessarily just hopelessly muddy—the sounds of the instrument’s strings are less robust and rich in overtones, and thus clearer—and that hearing such a performance would likely influence the way an enlightened player of the modern grand piano would render such a passage; however, I also believe that improvements in instrument construction are just that—improvements—and that many composers of the time would have leapt at the chance to hear their music played on clarinets that were in tune, or horns with consistent tone quality, or rich-sounding, better-sustaining Steinway pianos.

When I started listening to this performance of the Spohr Nonet, however (a piece with which I am quite familiar), I was quickly struck by the technical polish and pure intonation of the ensemble Osmosis, and in particular of its wind players: Kate Clark (flute), Ofer Frenkel (oboe), Nicole van Bruggen (clarinet), Helen MacDougall (bassoon), and Benny Aghassi (bassoon). What’s more, the group as a whole (these two works also include one each of violin, viola, cello, and bass) has a remarkably full, well-blended sound. I was soon won over; or perhaps better, the use of “original” instruments became for me a non-issue.

The two composers represented on this CD were exact contemporaries. Spohr’s Nonet, however, is an early work from 1813, while Onslow’s was composed 36 years later. Louis Spohr, the German virtuoso violinist-composer, is by far the better known of the two. George Onslow (1784–1859) was an international figure, French-born of English parents and educated in England, who lived most of his creative life in France but found the greatest favor in Germany; he had the good sense to be born into wealth and to marry into even more, thereby never needing to concern himself with earning a living. He studied with Dussek and, later, Reicha, and wrote voluminous amounts of chamber music in an era when practically all other composers in France were concentrating on music for the theater.

This is, as far as I can recall, my first introduction to Onslow’s music, and I was astonished by the individuality of his musical voice and the sheer attractiveness of the music. If pressed, and based on only this work, I would characterize Onslow as either an early Romantic or, perhaps more accurately, a post-Classicist, along with other fascinating figures of the early 19th century such as Reicha himself (a contemporary of Beethoven), Spohr, and Franz Berwald; each of these is more a musical successor to Haydn and Mozart than a follower of Beethoven, who dragged the musical mainstream kicking and screaming into the Romantic age. These composers, moreover, did not see themselves as revolutionaries, founded no school, and influenced few successors. Along with Carl Maria von Weber (1786–1826), composers of the generation following Spohr and Onslow—most prominently Schubert (1797–1828), Berlioz (1803–69), and Schumann, Chopin, and Mendelssohn (all born in 1809 or 1810), not to mention Liszt (1811) and Wagner (1813)—by contrast embraced new musical aesthetics and languages; the post-Classicists, on the other hand, were content to write less radical music, working mostly within well-established genres. The greatest part of Onslow’s oeuvre is his many string quartets and quintets; the present Nonet is one of only three of his chamber works to include wind instruments. (He also wrote a septet and a sextet, both for piano and winds.) Given this, his command of woodwind writing is stunning.

Onslow’s style, like that of Berwald, is highly individual. The striking opening bars already display a rhythmic restlessness reminiscent of the Swedish composer, along with a chromatic harmonic language comparable to Spohr’s. Even on period instruments, the sound of the ensemble is often strikingly orchestral; elsewhere, the prominence of the upper woodwinds gives the music a particularly bright quality. Throughout, Onslow shows a fine sense of instrumental color. The only sign of anything short of complete mastery is Onslow’s perhaps excessive reliance on rigid four-bar phrases. In every other way the Nonet is a thoroughly successful and engaging work, one that has me eager to investigate his other music.

Spohr’s Nonet is far more familiar; I write about it in more detail in my review of the Vienna Octet’s Spohr recordings, probably in the present issue. It has proved to be his most popular chamber work, but this appears to be its first period-instrument recording. The chief difference in compositional approach between this piece and Onslow’s is Spohr’s natural use of the violin as a primus inter pares ; in fact, Franc Polman’s violin, a bit scrawny-sounding in places and stretched to the limits of his technique in passages such as the second group in the opening movement, is the only weakness in this performance. The tempos are judicious, a refreshing change of pace from the mad dashes we’re accustomed to in so many historically informed performances. Irrespective of the fact that this reading is sui generis , it is recommendable by any measure.

The sound of this CD is as attractive as the performances: live without sacrificing presence. The packaging is the cardboard foldout with bound-in notes that is becoming popular in Europe; the notes, by flutist Clark, are down-to-earth and informative. Enthusiastically recommended.

FANFARE: Richard A. Kaplan
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Works on This Recording

Nonet in A minor, Op. 77 by Georges Onslow
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Osmosis (Classical)
Period: Romantic 
Written: by 1849; France 
Date of Recording: 10/2009 
Venue:  Old-Catholic Church, Delft, The Netherla 
Length: 33 Minutes 14 Secs. 
Nonet for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello & double bass in F major, Op. 3 by Louis Spohr
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Osmosis (Classical)
Period: Classical 
Written: 1813; Germany 
Date of Recording: 10/2009 
Venue:  Old-Catholic Church, Delft, The Netherla 
Length: 35 Minutes 4 Secs. 

Customer Reviews

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 Stunning music June 29, 2012 By Anthony G. (SANTA FE, NM) See All My Reviews "Stunning music, stunningly performed. I was not prepared for music this lovely and exceptionally well structured and original. The performers clearly loved the music they were playing here and the listener can tell." Report Abuse
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