We have here a French composer with a very English name, known in his day as the French Beethoven but almost entirely forgotten today, and yet with seventy string quartets and quintets to his name. However this Romantic artist from the Auvergne is undoubtedly a major composer, producing a unique instrumental oeuvre that adventurous ensembles are now exploring. George Onslow’s father was an English aristocrat who left England under a cloud but married into the French nobility and somehow hung onto his head during the Revolution. He was banished for his Royalist connections in 1797 but was able to return three years later to their Chateau Chalandrat near Clermont-Ferrand. He and his family survived the Napoleonic Wars, despite their English connections, and prospered with the Restoration.
Onslow had already composed over forty chamber works when he heard the first Paris performance of Beethoven’s C sharp minor and F major Quartets in 1828. He was shocked to the core, but more importantly he was inspired to compose another nineteen quartets and quintets in the next four years. During this period of intense productivity he undertook a fundamental questioning and restructuring of his art with dramatic results.
The C minor quartet was dedicated to the great French cellist, Alexandre Chevillard, a dedication that is apparent from the first bar for the work opens with a declamatory recitative by the cello. This dramatic demonstration immediately serves to highlight the star rôle of the cellist while also introducing the first theme and signalling the bravura nature of what is to come. The second theme is sung out by violin and cello and is followed by a chromatically descending unison phrase, which recurs several times, bringing new modulations each time. The development concentrates on the virtuoso opening idea, which is returned to in the recapitulation.
The five-section Minuetto is a less fevered interlude, notable for a remarkable Trio where the cello siezes the attention playing a staccato continuo underpinning the folk-like melody. As in the first movement you can expect sudden outbursts of virtuosity almost out of nowhere. The deeply contemplative Adagio is the heart of the work and clearly Onslow had been learning from his study of Beethoven’s great slow movements. The quartet concludes with a powerful finale bursting with rhythmic energy and flashes of virtuosity.