Following the release of its debut recording for Linn five years ago, the Avison Ensemble, so named after the great eighteenth-century English composer of keyboard concertos Charles Avison, has carved a privileged niche for itself. This is not measurable just in terms of the ensemble’s impressive clutch of recordings for Divine Art and Naxos, featuring Avison’s complete oeuvre, made up of sonatas and concerti grossi, but in its deliberate adoption of younger musicians, thus helping to ensure a promising future for performances in this milieu. The Avison’s highly acclaimed recording of six cello concertos by John Garth (1721-1810), reviewed by Simon Heighes in December 2007, undoubtedly paved the way for this latest two-CD set, which features the dozen accompanied keyboard sonatas Garth composed between the years c.1768 and 1782.
In the booklet notes for this new set, recorded in St Martin’s Church, Hampshire, in 2008, I greatly enjoyed reading Simon Fleming’s potted history lesson on the city of Durham and its not inconsiderable relevance to the life and times of the composer. Fleming points out that, notwithstanding its immediacy and charisma, the highly approachable nature of Garth’s keyboard writing, at least by comparison with, say, Avison’s, rendered them within reach of those possessing only a relatively modest technique. Indeed, in part due to the Alberti-bass accompaniments regularly detected in Garth’s sonatas, it is hardly difficult to notice a stylistic leaning in the direction of the aforementioned Italian composer; as likely as not, these works would have been heard within small-scale domestic situations rather than in the north-east’s grander performing spaces. Keyboard sonatas were, in Garth’s time, regarded as an ideal vehicle for composition utilizing small forces and, aside from the ubiquitous solo versions, countless sonatas for keyboards in combination with wind or string instruments sprang up willy-nilly. It was the latter form, writing broadly in the stylistic mould of Scarlatti and C. P. E. Bach, which seems to have particularly fired Garth’s imagination, and the result is a highly refined, elegant mode of writing holding considerable appeal.
Both the Op. 2 and Op. 4 Keyboard Sonatas offer up possibilities for playing on different keyboards; indeed, there are opportunities to hear some accomplished digitalism from Gary Cooper on harpsichord, fortepiano and organ in both sets of sonatas, and this serves to underscore the innately flexible nature of the music. Cooper is joined by violinists Pavlo Beznosiuk and Caroline Balding, and cellist Robin Michael, superbly disciplined musicians whose presence is invariably sensed rather than heard. All of the sonatas are built from a two-movement blueprint, none of which strays beyond ten minutes in total, and there is invariably a dance-like, light-hearted finale to each, serving as the perfect foil to the more firmly structured opening movements.
From the Op. 2 set I especially warmed to the Presto movement in the F major Sonata No. 2, in which Cooper pulls off the seemingly impossible by combining wit, sparkle and yet a determined rhythmic attack in one fell swoop on the fortepiano. The Allegro moderato to the E flat Sonata, played on the organ, comes over delightfully at this crisp pace, and the support given by the ensemble here is especially rewarding. From the Op. 4 set, at the harpsichord, a memorably sprightly account of the E flat major Sonata No. 5 is given, particularly in the Spiritoso , which for me ranks as among the most shapely and stylishly captivating playing on the recording. It is not just the adventurous speeds which contribute to the zesty effect in these performances but the intuitive and perfectly aligned nuances and points of emphasis with which the ensemble is able to operate so consistently. The Rondeau to the G minor Sonata, Op. 4 No. 6, on the organ, is as feisty and well crafted as one could imagine. The recording is excellent, as it needs to be, in order to do justice to the top-drawer musicianship on display from these fine players.