The name George Onslow may conjure up images of whippets, pints and rolling Yorkshire dales, but he was in fact born in Clermont-Ferrand in 1784 and was known as ‘the French Beethoven’. Admittedly, his grandfather was the 1st Earl of Onslow, but we’ll let that pass. Onslow’s career as a composer rested largely on chamber music; he wrote 36 string quartets and 34 string quintets. However, among his larger-scale works lurk four symphonies, the first of which – in A major – featured in this programme from the period instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Conducted by François-Xavier Roth, they were ‘flying the flag’ for France.

François-Xavier Roth © Marco Borggreve
François-Xavier Roth
© Marco Borggreve

Onslow’s bedfellows for this concert – Berlioz and Beethoven – were chosen to put him into context; the First Symphony was premièred just four months after the Symphonie fantastique, while Beethoven was seen as a major influence. The inclusion of the Overture to Béatrice et Bénédict and the “Eroica” Symphony in the programme, however, had the effect of putting poor Onslow back into the shade. After a portentous introduction, there was plenty of stormy writing and tension in the Allegro spirituoso, enhanced by lean OAE strings, but these were interspersed with calmer moments, which rather blunted the sense of exhilaration. Inner movements were weaker, in terms of both composition and execution. A brooding Adagio espressivo made much use of horns and trombones, but was marred by parched bassoon tone, while the oboe rather clumsily negotiated the tripping trio section of the pompous Minuet. The finale was by far the best movement, strings scurrying and scrambling in a two-in-the-bar frenzy. Roth didn’t maintain ensemble cohesion throughout, but the playing was always characterful.

The Overture to the opéra comique Béatrice et Bénédict had launched the evening in style, Roth being particularly acute at mastering the dramatic pauses Berlioz plants in the score. Some acidic wind tuning aside, this good-natured curtain-raiser – something of a pot-pourri – burbled along merrily, until chuckling piccolo and gunshot timpani hastened it to a rollicking conclusion. 

Those gunshot timps were in evidence again at the start of Beethoven’s “Eroica”. The first two bars alone – launched into by Roth before audience applause had died down – proved itself far more revolutionary than anything in Onslow’s First, despite the score’s familiarity. Roth navigated a pacy course through the opening movement Allegro con brio, which was hugely satisfying, despite some uncharacteristic ensemble slips.

The opening tread of the Funeral March was marked by wonderfully grainy double basses, while the Scherzo was unleashed with fury after a simmering string introduction. Rustic horns raucously emulated the hunt before a breathless finale in which Roth really cranked up the speedometer. Always with an ear for colour, Roth had one string section played by a quartet of principals, while the gallop for the finishing line was pulsating, if threatening to come off the rails at times. 

One player, in particular, epitomized everything I admire about the OAE: Luise Buchberger, principal cellist, was a joy to watch. Eyes glued to the conductor more than to the score, beaming smile, she would hunch over her cello one moment, leaning full back the next, marshalling her forces on the right of the platform with frequent glances back to principal double bass, Chi-Chi Nwanoku. During the applause, I’m sure I spotted her turn and thank her section too.

It was great to see some 200 audience members had taken advantage of an initiative whereby Under 35s could purchase tickets for just £1, bringing in a youthful crowd. After such exuberant music making, I hope they’ll come back for more.