Cellist Gordon Dixon formed the Avison Ensemble with the intention of bringing to light the music of Charles Avison and other lesser-known British contemporaries of Handel. This period instrument ensemble has already recorded Avison’s Opp. 3, 4 and 6 Concertos for Naxos; a further release on Divine Art will contain Avison’s Op. 9; the six cello concertos by the eighteenth-century Newcastle composer John Garth were reviewed last month. Many listeners will already be familiar with Avison’s orchestral transcriptions of some of Domenico Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas but none will be familiar with these, Avison’s concerto grosso arrangements of Francesco Geminiani’s Op. 1 Sonata for violin and basso continuo. They are well worth becoming acquainted with, especially given the outstanding quality of this world premiere recording.
Mark Kroll’s excellent booklet note contains some essential facts, which I’ll summarize briefly here. In his day, Avison (c1709-70) was considered northern England’s leading musician. While studying in London, he made the acquaintance of Francesco Geminiani, who had moved to the city in 1714; the two became firm friends and Avison remained a tireless advocate of Geminiani’s music in England for the rest of his life. In 2000 and 2002 two of Avison’s workbooks were discovered; the second of these contains the composer’s concerto arrangements of Geminiani’s Sonatas for violin and basso continuo, Op. 4 and these concerto grosso arrangements of the same composer’s Op. 1. Somewhat inexplicably, Avison arranged only 11 of the 12 sonatas; Pavlo Beznsiuk, one of the soloists and the director of the Avison Ensemble on this recording, has plugged the gap by arranging the missing item (no. 11).
Most of the works here exhibit the usual sonata da chiesa slow-fast-slow-fast layout in the number and order of the movements and are scored for the seven-part string ensemble apparently favoured by the Avison. The concertino group comprises two violins (Beznsiuk, who seems to have the bulk of the work, and Simon Jones). More often than not, the second concertino violin plays what was the lower note of a double stop in the original sonatas, but sometimes the parts are more equally shared – this seems especially true in Beznosiuk’s arrangement.
This two-CD set is a delight from start to finish. The playing is brisk and light, the textures clear and the overall ensemble well nigh perfect. Beznosiuk is on stunning form (when is he not?), his fresh, improvisatory approach well suited to communicating a sense of adventure and discovery in what is “new” Early Music. The faster movements feature exquisite passagework, as in the first Allegro of Concerto no. 2 in D minor, the first Vivace in no. 8 and the exciting middle Allegro in the three-movement Concerto no. 12 in D minor. The beautifully ornamented slow movements are equally impressive – take the opening Affettuoso of the B flat Concerto no. 5 or the Amoroso, also from no. 12. A real highlight, though, is the extended set of two-part variations (here realized by violin and cello without accompaniment) that forms a ‘trio’ section between the final Andante and its repeat in the Concerto no. 6 in G minor.
Recorded sound and overall presentation are also of the utmost quality. I recall being deeply impressed with the Avison Ensemble’s Naxos releases; this latest enterprise only confirms that here, surely, is a band whose strength of vision and outstanding artistry would have pleased not only its namesake but also Geminiani, beyond all measure
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