I have a particular fondness for English music of the eighteenth century, having spent a number of years researching the period for a post-grad thesis. That was way back in the mid-1980s when all there was to listen to on record was a little bit of Arne and Boyce but precious little else until Peter Holman and Hyperion began their pioneering English Orpheus series in 1988. Now hardly a year goes by without the release of a clutch of significant world première recordings. This year, for instance, Capriccio Basel has devoted an entire recording to the glorious concertos of the Oxford-based composer William Hayes. Last year it was the turn of the Newcastle composer Charles Avison, whose Concerti Grossi, opp. 3 and 4 joined the outstanding op. 6 already available on Naxos. The champions of the last two recording projects were the aptly named Avison Ensemble, set up specifically to restore Avison’s reputation and bring us some first-rate alternatives to the ubiquitous op. 6 of Corelli and Handel.
Now the Avison Ensemble have begun to look further afield, though their loyalties are still firmly fixed on the North of England. A few years ago they successfully recorded a single cello concerto from the Durham –based John Garth’s op.1; now they’ve returned to finish the job. John Garth (1721-1810) was a fairly typical jobbing musician of the period; performing (on the cello and organ), composing, teaching and organising concerts. Garth’s Six Concertos, op. 1 were all written as a vehicle for him to demonstrate his abilities as a cellist at his regular subscription concerts. Though the collection wasn’t published until 1760, the works had all been tried and tested in public since the early 1750s. Concertos for solo instruments (other than the keyboard) were rare in England at this time; composers generally thought their concerti grossi would be more generally useful to England’s numerous amateur music societies.
We should be grateful indeed that Garth’s op. 1 achieved the security of print and that it was much more than a vanity publication. Each concerto has been lovingly crafted by the expert fingers of an experienced cellist who knew exactly how to showcase the various registers of the instrument (especially the soulful tenor range), and – most importantly of all for a concerto – how to set the teeth rattling with virtuoso flights of fancy. Garth was also a natural melodist with a real gift for pithy memorable ideas and a penchant for tenderising the listener with melting episodes in the minor mode (in no. 4 the penultimate section of the slow movement really brings out the goose bumps). As with so much English music of this period there are a myriad of stylistic influences: it’s a veritable tug of war between treasured (Baroque) traditions and (especially in no. 5) new galant turns of phrases.
After such a build-up that heavens the performers here cherish absolutely every note of the music. I could really hug Richard Tunnicliffe for his determination to send these works back out into the world after so many years with the best possible chance of survival. He digs so deep that even the slenderest of Garth’s ideas polish up like the work of a master. Violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk directs the one-to-a-part string orchestra with missionary zeal: thrusting, dynamic and witty in the fast movements; lustrous and soulful in slow ones. The wonderful clarity of the recording favours – of all things – the double bass; and Timothy Amherst’s playing is beautifully weighted, by turns nimble and groundingly sonorous.
This is a very fine achievement. Memorable music, persuasively performed, richly recorded and among the most rewarding releases of the year.
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