A brief resumé of George Onslow’s career. He was born in Clermont-Ferrand in France on 27 July 1784 of British descent. He studied the piano in London with the Jan Ladislav Dussek and Johann Baptist Cramer. Onslow returned to France for composition lessons with Anton Reicha. His compositional achievements include four operas and four symphonies. His main interest seemed to lie in chamber music: he wrote 34 string quintets, 36 string quartets, many trios, a few piano pieces etc. His musical style is suffused with romanticism; it is little wonder that he was known as the ‘French Beethoven’. George Onslow died in his birthplace on 3 October 1853.
The Sonata for piano, four hands No. 1 in E minor, op.7 is a splendid piece. It was composed in 1811 and dedicated to his composer friend Camille Pleyel, who was the son of the piano-manufacturer Ignaz. It was to become one of Onslow’s most popular pieces with performances by Franz Liszt, Ferdinand Hiller, Frederic Chopin and Louis Gottschalk.
The musical content of this sonata owes more to the four-handed piano works of Schubert than to Beethoven’s solo piano music. The entire work is characterised by vibrant harmonies, lively rhythms and considerable contrast between themes, which present tragedy, grandeur and reflection. The middle movement is a genial ‘romanza’ with an attractive tune. There is a slightly troubled middle section. The finale, ‘agitato’ is written in sonata form, with an opening toccata-like theme. This is balanced by vibrant chords and an airy second subject.
The Sonata was published with many titles, including ‘Duo’, ‘Grand Duo’ ‘Sonate’ and ‘Grande Sonate’.
The other work by George Onslow on this CD is a compilation of six short pieces for piano solo. They were composed in the 1830s and collected some years after the composer’s death in 1864. These intimate numbers are like ‘nocturnes’ in mood. Nos. 1,2 and 4 are played by Linda Ang Stoodley and 3, 5 and 6 by Robert Stoodley.
Claude Debussy’s Petite Suite was originally written for piano/four hands between 1886 and 1889. It was premiered by the composer and his publisher Jacques Durand on 1 March 1889, to little acclaim. The work is in four movements. The opening ‘En Bateau’ presents a Verlaine-inspired musical picture of boating on the Seine. This is followed by a ‘Cortège’ which is a little livelier than its title, with its funereal associations, would imply. The music of the ‘Minuet’ is elegant, and contains a few felicitous passages with a couple of nods to Spain. The final movement is a lively ballet that features a charming waltz in the middle section.
This ‘invitation to the dance’ could have been composed by any of the late nineteenth century French composers including Fauré, Massenet or Chabrier. There is certainly little that is ‘impressionistic’ about it. However, it is of interest because ‘En Bateau’ is the first of the ‘water’ pieces that was to characterise some of Debussy’s music. It is a work that is full of charm and poise.
The Petite Suite has been subject to several transcriptions over the years with the best-known being Henri Busser’s 1907 orchestration.
Francis Poulenc requires no introduction to listeners. On the other hand, the present work, ‘Chanson’s de l’Amour et de la Guerre’ is a new production. Several songs from Poulenc’s catalogue have been transcribed by Linda Ang Stoodley. I am not sure that the title ‘Songs of Love and War’ is an essential adjunct to appreciating these wistful pieces. I accept that ‘La Couronne’ majors on lovers separated by war and ‘Les Gars Polonais’ on the “brazen idealism of the young as they head off to combat”. Other pieces were originally settings of poems written during the dark days of the German occupation of France. Yet, if one did not know the back-story, the listener would be charmed rather than challenged by these wistful, and sometimes vivacious pieces, especially the popular waltz inspired ‘Les Chemins de l’Amour’. For information, the songs and their sources are:
– ‘La Couronne’ (The Crown): Huit Chansons Polonaises (Eight Polish Songs) (1934) FP69
– “C” (The Bridge of Cé): Deux Poèmes de Louis Aragon FP122 (1943)
– ‘Les Chemins de l’Amour’ (The Ways of Love): FP106 (1940) Jean Anouilh
– ‘Fêtes Galantes’ (Noble Celebrations): Deux Poèmes de Louis Aragon FP122 (1943)
– ‘Violon’ (Violin): Fiançailles pour Rare FP101 (1939) Louise de Vilmorin
– ‘Les Gars Polonais’ (The Polish Lads): Huit Chansons Polonaises (Eight Polish Songs) (1934) FP69
The two pianists have added some ‘late’ modifications into the transcriptions to enhance the unity of the work. This includes a reprise of ‘Fêtes Galantes’ at the end of the work and a jazz-infused ending to ‘Violon’. There is no date given for these transcriptions.
The liner notes (in English and French) are extensive and include a discussion on ‘The Role of Transcription Past and Present.’ There are biographical details of the performers. Texts of the Poulenc songs may have been helpful.
The playing by Piano à Deux (made up of Robert and Linda Ang Stoodley) is excellent. They have chosen a vibrant and imaginative programme, and have succeeded in introducing the listener to two works by the unjustly neglected George Onslow.