Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartets: in d,
AGOGIQUE 006 (69:52)
Both the ensemble and the record label are new to me; the composer is not. In fact, after reviewing three different discs of George Onslow’s chamber works—the last a recording of three string quartets (other than the ones at hand), performed by the
Diotima Quartet in 34:1—I decided to swear off Onslow, leaving others to sing his praises. Yet here I am, at it again, even though nothing I’ve yet to hear by this part-English, part-French contemporary of Ferdinand Ries, Ludwig Spohr, Konradin Kreutzer, and Paganini has lit my fire. But hope springs eternal, so I accepted this assignment, willing to give Onslow another chance to persuade me.
Whether I was in a more receptive mood, the music was more interesting and better performed, or some other combination of factors was in play, it’s hard to say, but I found these three string quartets by Onslow quite captivating. I still wouldn’t accord them masterpiece status, but it’s hard to find fault with them, as I did with the quartets on the Diotima’s release, for being out of date for their time. The opp. 54, 55, and 56 quartets offered by the Diotima date from 1832 or later, after Onslow’s life-altering encounter with Beethoven’s late quartets. But the three opus numbers on the present disc date from 1822 or earlier, before Beethoven composed his late quartets. Onslow’s models then would still have been Haydn and Mozart, though I would maintain they’re still somewhat behind their time, acknowledging no awareness of Beethoven’s middle quartets, which, by 1822, were well known.
But perceptions of how rapidly Beethoven’s influence spread and took hold may be exaggerated, for Onslow’s music is not really behind its time if one listens to the quartets and other chamber works by his above-named contemporaries. The three quartets heard here have much in common with the quartets of Spohr. Onslow may not make quite the virtuosic demands on the first violinist that Spohr does, nor be as harmonically adventurous as Anton Reicha, but his music is well crafted, melodious, if not always memorably so, rhythmically lively, and coherent in its progress. Unlike some composers, Onslow seems not to have suffered from CDD (Continuation Deficit Disorder). He knew where to go next with an idea and how to develop it, so that his works have a sense of logic and purpose to them, even if the purpose is not of any great moment.
It’s rather surprising these days to come across an album booklet devoted entirely to the composer—containing, in this case, a lengthy and very fine essay on Onslow in French by Viviane Niaux, with English translation by Keith Edgerley—but not a word about the musicians, other than their names: Gilone Gaubert-Jacques and Charlotte Grattard, violins; Delphine Grimbert, viola; and Emmanuel Jacques, cello. In case the names don’t sound gender specific, the two violinists and violist are female, the cellist is male. Other than that, there’s not a lot I can say, for this French ensemble of youthful looking players, named after the famous Italian violin maker, Giovanni Battista Ruggieri (1653–1711) does not make it easy for non-French speaking readers to learn much about the group; its website, quatuorruggieri.com, is entirely in French, without benefit of an English version.
So, just for fun, I copied the website’s French text and pasted it into one of those universal translators. Not to regale you with the complete disintegration of linguistic comprehension, let me just quote one sentence of the English translation: “Because if you ask the musicians talk about their instrument, as their bow (chosen to be adapted to the proposed partition), they will be inexhaustible.” It seems that we still have quite a ways to go when it comes to computer translation software.
What I think I learned about the group is that the Quatuor Ruggieri plays on period instruments—perhaps by its namesake and/or perhaps fitted with gut strings?—or maybe not, because in listening to the recording, you wouldn’t know that these were anything but modern-instrument performances. In any case, the Ruggieri’s website lists this Onslow CD as the ensemble’s one and only recording, but it is available at both Amazon and ArkivMusic. In my above-cited review of the Diotima Quartet’s Onslow disc, I was very complimentary towards that ensemble’s playing, while expressing reservations about the music. In this case, my response to Onslow’s music is much more positive, and the Quatuor Ruggieri gets my unconditional endorsement. This is a finely honed group that performs with flawless execution, giving spirited readings that make the strongest case for Onslow I’ve yet heard. Definitely recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
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