The more entertaining stories of composers, particularly those who are lesser known, seem to revolve around the usual stereotypes, with the best being related to various mishaps (self-inflicted or serendipitous). One has to admit, however, that the majority were workaday musicians who left hardly a ripple in history but who wrote copious amounts of music that are competent, interesting, and, alas, neglected. Most countries have legions of these, but my attention is often drawn to England, where in terms of reputation, the last “great” early composer was Henry Purcell, who died young and left the field to foreigners, such as Handel, Johann Christian Bach, or Haydn. The truth, of course, is quite different, and I am quite pleased to see an uptick in the revival on disc of native British composers, many of whom were prolific and active in the various cities about the United Kingdom. One such concerns the composer John Garth (1721-1810), who spent the bulk of his professional life in Durham, where there was a large cathedral and a rather active arts scene. To be sure, cathedral organist James Heseltine (1711-1763) attempted to control all music in the city, even thwarting Garth’s friend and mentor, Charles Avison (1709-1770). By 1752, however, Garth and Avison began a series of public concerts, which the city fathers found superior to Heseltine’s offerings, and the rivalry began to vanish. By the time of Heseltine’s successor, Thomas Ebdon (1738-1811), it was gone altogether. Garth also composed services for the cathedral for the remainder of his life. The only interesting feature of his life is that Garth waited until 1794 to marry, which is odd considering that he and his new wife had been an item for almost a decade and both were well-to-do.
Garth’s music has been recorded before, and by this same ensemble: a set of six cello concertos (op. 1) on the same label in 2008. Michael Carter noted in his review (32:6) that these represent transitional stages from the Baroque to the Classical periods, with structural and harmonic features of both stylistic eras. These two sets of sonatas, published in 1768 and 1772 respectively, are firmly planted into the Classical era, indicating that the composer was well aware of the latest style trends and not content to follow any conservative patterns at all. Both sets conform to a two-movement structure following French fashion of the time, generally a sonata form followed by some sort of rondo or dance. These were well established in England through the efforts of J. C. Bach or Karl Friedrich Abel, and even Avison’s late works (the booklet notes stretching things a bit to include others, such as C. P. E. Bach or Domenico Scarlatti into this mix of models). What is most evident in the op. 2 Sonatas is that the opening movements are almost all characterized by a driving ostinato rhythm that seems particularly Mannheim-ish. The opening of the A-Major Sonata (op. 2/5), for instance, has a well-defined theme with a rushing accompaniment that devolves briefly into suspensions and some quite virtuoso playing for the keyboard. What is striking is that the violins and keyboard (even with a continue cellist) are all fairly evenly matched, so that no one instrument predominates. The C-Minor Sonata (op. 2/3) has a folk-like main theme, almost as if Garth were evoking a more bucolic spirit despite the minor key. As for the second movements, I was quite surprised to hear a foreshadowing of the French Revolutionary song Ça ira in the E major Sonata (op. 2/4), not to mention a rather nice Mannheim crescendo in the final Presto of the E-Major Sonata (op. 2/6). It is no wonder that this set was the 18th-century equivalent of a bestseller.
As for the op. 4, Garth follows pretty much the same format; pleasant tunes, sequencing of thematic sections, energetic bass line (with active keyboard accompaniment), and solid formal structures that evoke J. C. Bach. The exceptions to this are the two minor-key sonatas, No. 2 in E Minor and No. 6 in G Minor. The first movement of the former is filled with tension and a virtuoso keyboard part that seems to require both skill and emotional intensity to bring off. This contrasts with the rather delicate and ghostly minuet that practically minces off the disc. The latter is filled with a thicker texture, which would not be out of place in some sort of orchestration (the use of organ here enhances this textural feature). Here too there is considerable emotional intensity, which is diffused in the final section of the exposition with some superficial triplet figures as if to say that one ought not to take the power too seriously. The final rondeau has a theme that seems almost a bit Chopinesque (if, that is, Chopin had lived in the 18th century), and again Garth diffuses this emotional melody with suspensions and a nicely soft coda. But by the end the serious mood increases and when the final theme returns it sounds strangely melancholic.
The Avison Ensemble performs these two sonata sets with considerable attention to Garth’s clear phrasing. Their tempos are flexible enough to allow his tunes to stand out, and they have an outstanding sense of ensemble. The music itself ranges from the merely pleasant (which is what such sets were meant to provide to both performers and audience) to some quite gripping moments, such as in the minor-key sonatas of the op. 4. Since the keyboard parts, often quite technically demanding even in the accompaniment patterns, are generic, the ensemble has chosen to perform the bulk on the harpsichord (which was probably the main instrument of choice for the country at the time), but in several cases, most notably the texturally rich F-Major Sonata (op.2/ 2), the aforementioned E-Major Sonata (No. 6 of the same set), and the E-Minor Sonata (op. 4/2), keyboardist Gary Cooper has chosen a fortepiano to exploit Garth’s wider range of expression and dynamics, and in the texturally-rich work (opp. 2/4 and 4/6), the organ is used. I find these choices to be entirely warranted by the music itself, though of course the performance practice of the time would have allowed for any keyboard at hand. In short, this is fine music with an excellent performance, and demonstrates that we may well be missing out on a wonderful facet of the music of this period from England outside of London if this is any example.
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