The last track of the second disc of this fine double album is Avison’s Sonata in G, Op. 8 No. 6. It is well worth waiting for; nothing short of a miniature set of variations, on what sounds like a melancholy quasi-folk-tune, treated with deftness, wit and invention. It’s also played here with relish and charm by the four members of the Avison Ensemble. It characterizes so much of what I feel about this release; essentially, that the rediscovery of this composer and his music in recent years has been long overdue, but also that he is something of a one-off, an intellectual not always easy to pin down, because quirky and unpredictable, suggesting widely different influences at different stages of his career. Indeed the two sets of sonatas here might almost – not quite! – be by two different composers.
Charles Avison, whose mature musical activities were largely centred on Newcastle-upon-Tyne, lived from 1709 to 1770, and he never quite faded from view owing to the seminal nature of his 1752 Essay on Musical Expression . The Ensemble who have bravely borrowed his name can already proudly point to a number of successful recordings of his music; including the Concertos, Opp. 3, 4 and 6 for Naxos, as well as the Concerti grossi , Opp. 9 and 10 and Avison’s orchestral expansions of instrumental sonatas by Scarlatti and by Avison’s own mentor Geminiani, on the present enterprising label. (We are promised, as a final installment, the Sonatas, Opp. 5 and 7 later this year.)
The dozen sonatas here were actually recorded over three years ago, with ideal sound, using historically informed practice, on historic instruments or, in the case of the keyboards, excellent-sounding period copies; it has been well worth the wait, for Avison proves as inventive here as elsewhere. More so, perhaps, in Op. 8 than in Op. 1 – some 27 years separate their publication, and since the earlier set dates from 1737, when Avison was in his twenties and still under the spell of Geminiani and Corelli in London, perhaps that should not surprise us. All the same, one can be impressed by the dark-hued sounds that are the predominant feature of these Trio Sonatas, Op. 1; all bar the last are in minor keys (the first is even headed ‘in chromatic Dorian mode’), and all are in the standard four-movement slow-fast, slow-fast sonata da chiesa format. Simon Fleming’s thoroughly readable note wonders whether they really were actually intended for execution in church, but it is difficult to feel that the alternatives, public entertainment or private music-making, would quite lend themselves to such severity of utterance. The small portative organ used for these pieces by Robert Howarth is ideal for the purpose.
For the later Op. 8 set, which did not appear until 1764, the harpsichord he uses is a Taskin copy, and in them he deploys some remarkable and unflashy virtuosity; some of the keyboard writing is flamboyant, but executed with seeming ease. These pieces were anyway originally advertised as keyboard sonatas with accompaniment for two violins and a bass – although that is not always what one hears, since the violin parts are by no means mere embellishments, as the performers well understand. This time around, all the keys bar one are major, sonata da chiesa form gives way to simple pairs of movements (but now longer), and the Italian influence yields to Rameau, sometimes Handel, and very audibly Domenico Scarlatti; the opening movement of the D major is identified as a March, but there are similar four-square dotted rhythms at the start of the B flat (No. 4), and in both cases the repeated notes inevitably recall the Neapolitan master.
There are other surprises; the two movements of No. 2 are linked by a weirdly meandering ‘Interludio”, whose succeeding Allegro is full of character; quite simply, Avison is never predictable. That little set of variations at the end of Avison’s Op, 8 is just the icing on the cake of a most desirable release.