Newcastle-born Charles Avison (1709-1770) was the most important provincial composer in England during the first half of the 18 th century. He was a prolific composer of concerti grossi modelled on those of Corelli, and an influential theorist who, in his An Essay on Musical Expression, was one of the few English musicians to openly challenge Handel’s stature (although he later revised his opinions). Unusually for a significant 18 th century English musician, Avison played no part in London concert life, preferring to remain in his native city, where he held the post of organist of St Nicholas church, at the same time organizing and (from 1738) directing a series of subscription concerts. It was for these that Avison composed his concerti grossi, or “grand concertos” as they were termed in England, some 60 in all, of which the most popular are the 12 concertos based on sonatas by Domenic Scarlatti.
The 12 concertos of op. 9 are among Avison’s later publications, first appearing divided into two equal groups in London in 1766. They were composed in four rather than the more customary seven parts (three concertinos and four ripienos). Avison clearly aimed to maximise sales by offering the option of playing them as string quartets, keyboard solos, or concertos with either the first violinist or keyboard player taking the concertino part. The present one-per-part performances, by an ensemble founded in 2000 and here making its recording debut, take such varied possibilities into account, the first violin taking the role in all but nos.8 and 9, when organ and harpsichord respectively take the lead, while no.4 is played as a string quartet. In addition, a violone is added to the bass line in the works featuring the harpsichord.
My major criticism of the disc is that, even in the works where the harpsichord or the organ take the concertino part, the keyboard parts are so reticently balanced that their contribution is all by inaudible for much of the time. Otherwise, the performances present these appealing works in a highly attractive light. The sturdy fugal allegros that follow a dotted rhythm opening movement in all but the E minor concerto are played with sprightly buoyancy and clean, crisp articulation, while the attractive final movements, often tunefully graceful minuets, are played with winning affection.
Leader Simon Jones deserves high praise for some particularly elegant playing, especially in the triplet variation that concludes the minuet finale of no.4. The only other small caveat concerns the slow tempos of some of Avison’s largos, a largo marking normally suggesting a quicker tempo than adagio in 18 th century music. The sound is excellent and the enterprise is a credit to the small British company Divine Art (distributed in the US by Empire Music, New York). But a playing time of 46 minutes is surely parsimonious, even when the disc is listed at mid-price. We could have been given at least two more of these fine concertos, which are currently unavailable elsewhere.