Charles Avison (1709-1770) belongs to that unfortunate generation of English composers who lived and worked under the shadow of the great Handel. Other of his ilk include William Croft, Maurice Green, John Stanley, William Boyce and Thomas Augustine Arne, all of whom worked primarily in the field of church music (Handel was lees active here), with the exception of Arne, who wrote extensively for the theater. Avison, by comparison, is the sole English-born musician of the period who can claim to have built his reputation on instrumental music and this he accomplished during his own lifetime. Born into a musical family in Newcastle-on-Tyne, Avison spent his entire adult life in that northern seacoast town, except for a brief sojourn in London, during which he is said to have studied with Geminiani. In fact, Avison’s Trio Sonatas, Op. 1, were most likely written in London under the guidance of Geminiani. Italian music, of course, was all the rage in England at the time, and as a pupil of the great Corelli, Geminiani no doubt passed the torch to Avison, whose Concerti Grossi, Op. 6, bears all the hallmarks of the Corelli/Geminiani style. These were, and remain Avison’s most popular (and recorded) works.
Avison’s chamber music also contains elements of the prevailing Italian style, whether in the older trio-sonata format or the newer ‘harpsichord with the accompaniment of two violins’, and can be considered his greatest accomplishment. Unlike the concerti grossi, which are in many cases arrangements of earlier music by Corelli, Geminiani and Scarlatti, the sonatas are all original compositions, and in the case of the harpsichord sonatas, incorporate a newer, more extroverted, less ‘hide-bound’ compositional style that points to concurrent developments in France and Germany, variously known as style gallant and empfindsamer Stil . The harpsichord sonatas, with their constantly scurrying 16 th notes, put quite a demand on the keyboard player. They sound for all intents and purposes like ‘chamber concertos’. I find it ironic that Avison write this music for the old-fashioned harpsichord, rather than the up-and-coming pianoforte. But the music would certainly lose much of its effervescent charm if it were played on the latter.
The Avison Ensemble was formed ‘several years ago’ by the cellist Gordon Dixon with the express purpose – you guessed it – of performing recently discovered works of Avison. With all the concerti grossi now released on the Divine Art label, the group has turned its attention to the chamber music. The small group represented on the present recording contains two names that are likely to be well known on this side of the Atlantic: violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk and cellist Richard Tunnicliffe. Twenty-five years ago, of course, Beznosiuk was one of the young lions of the period-instrument movement in Britain; now he’s one of its grand old men. Compared with other firebrand violinists who seem to get greater press coverage, Andrew Manze and Reinhard Goebel among them, I find Beznosiuk’s playing to be just as imaginative but without the self-aggrandizement – in other words, his playing is always at the service of the music, His colleagues are equally fine, especially harpsichordist Robert Howarth, who breezes through the plethora of notes in the harpsichord sonatas as if they were proverbial pieces of cake. The sound of the ensemble, especially in the string-dominated trio sonatas, is surprisingly robust and gutsy – you won’t hear any whining period violins on these CDs. Incidentally, the organ is used as a continuo keyboard in every movement of every trio sonata – I could have used more variety here, Why are early-music groups so averse to using the lute (therobo)? The combination of a lute with a chamber organ together with cello or gamba, is both historically correct and musically felicitous.
An exhaustive search through roughly two decade’s worth of Fanfarei back issue – as well as all the Schwann catalogs I could lay my hands on – produced exactly one prior recording of Avison’s chamber music: a single sonata that London Baroque recorded sometime in the 1980s for Amon Ra, now withdrawn. The present two-CD set would appear to be a first for most of these works, and it’s complete, no less. Extensive notes on the composer, the music, the performers, and the instruments are provided. The recorded sound is just about ideal, with a very realistic recorded perspective, and – as indicated above – quite listenable string sound. Highly recommended.