Onlsow and Jadin at La Maison Française 

(published first at ionarts)

Prima Vista String Quartet
This Friday, La Maison Française presented a concert of the Prima Vista Quartet that featured four works, three of which I had hoped to hear on a recording. What a delightful surprise to have them played to me live instead – and by such refined musicians as the young Prima Vista Quartet from France. First was Anton Reicha’s String Quartet op.95 no.3 (1808) of whom I’ve only heard Wind Quartets before. (I am currently reviewing the second issue of that complete cycle on Crystal Records – lovely stuff – and I heard from Robert R. Reilly that the enterprising and brand new label Toccata Classics is planning to record all of the string quartets of Reicha (1770-1836). There are almost too dozen quartets – so it will be quite a project.)

Originally from Prague, Reicha, a student of Haydn’s ended up an influential teacher at the Paris Conservatoire after stops in Hamburg and Vienna. His quartet is pleasant and charming – and before that sounds too much like a put-down, I’ll add that it’s not bad, either. If his music has a distinctively classical, Haydenesque vernacular, it didn’t show in Reicha’s most famous pupils who make up the Who’s-Who of romanticism (Liszt, Gounod, Berlioz, Franck). One particular student, much less known, stayed closer to Reicha’s style than the others. That’s probably why George Onslow (1784-1853) is less famous. For all his lack of fame, Onslow is very much worth hearing. If you liked the Wilms symphonies CD that was among ionarts’ (and the NYT’s) recordings of 2004, you should likewise embrace Onslow. Onslow, though born to a very English family, saw the light of day in the Auvergne which is where he stayed his entire life. His chamber music output is unique among French composers. 36 Quartets and 34 Quintets rival his colleague Spohr in quantity and for all I can tell of my limited exposure with either, Onslow also rivals Spohr in quality. His String Quartet op.4 no.1 (1810) is somewhere between late Haydn and middle Beethoven if, admittedly, with an ounce or two less genius. They certainly invite to be explored more extensively.

For an evening that was designed around an exhibition of items and artifacts belonging to Napoleon Bonaparte (it’s at the National Geographic, most pieces are shown publicly for the first time and it comes enthusiastically recommended by Roland Celette, the French Cultural Attaché), it was only appropriate that the brief Variations on ‘La Marseillaise’ by Giovanni Battista Viotti were played. It is a movement from his Quatuor d’airs variés no.2 and as such stands in close relation to Haydn’s movement on the Austrian Imperial hymn (now Germany’s national anthem) from his op.76, no.3 and – something I didn’t know before reading Baudime Jam’s program notes – Onslow’s such treatment of God save the King from his quartet op.9, no.1.

Best for last, though, as the 1796 String Quartet op.2, no.1 by Hyacinthe Jadin (1769-1800) proved to be yet more interesting than the already delightful Reicha and Onslow. Especially with his equal treatment of the four voices did he proof to have created a more sophisticated work than the aforementioned composers. With its Largo – Allegro moderato first movement (a touch of K465 – “Dissonance” in the beginning), this oldest of the four pieces played that night is oddly enough the most Beethoven-like, the most forward looking. I dare say that the master of the format himself would have been proud of it, had he written the work in 1796, two years before he undertook the work on op.18. I am most intrigued how his other string quartets might sound like. Despite dying of consumption at age 31 he managed to write a full dozen of them. (A particular shame to have died so early, it seems, as he was the professor at the Paris Conservatoire responsible for teaching the ladies piano class. It’s a career choice I respect tremendously!)

The Prima Vista Quartet, made up of Elzbieta Gladys, Anne Verger, Baudime Jam and a new cellist in Laurence Picard, was a more than capable exponent of the work – with playing that may not have been the last word in polish or even accuracy, but certainly did have the spirit and engagement that did justice to presented works. Especially notable was the cool they kept when – throughout almost the entire concert – a cricket very, very loudly tried to convince them to switch keys with his uneven A-flat. At the most inopportune moments, this beast started chirping away to everyone’s consternation. A request to the Maison Française: Find the thing and kill it, PETA and Greenpeace be damned.

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