It is probably only experts in the history of British music who will prick up their ears at the name John Garth (1721-1810), and even among those experts only those who have specialized in the 18 th century. The organist, from Durham in northern England, enjoyed greater popularity during his life than his friend, the nowadays better known Charles Avison (1709-1770), under whom Garth is presumed to have studied.
The British label Divine Art, which specialises both in music played by the Avison Ensemble on original historical instruments, and in music by almost forgotten 17 th and 18 th century composers, has recently issued two CDs of Garth’s cello concertos.
That the Opus Primum has been chosen from all the possible concertos is no reason to worry, because for many years Garth was the cello soloist in the subscription concerts in Durham. So he was a true expert of the instrument. The cello concertos represented in fact only his second published work, but this was in 1760, by which time Garth was 39 years old and so far from a beginner.
Even though all the concertos follow the fast-slow-fast three movement sequence typical of the 18 th century, the pieces show influences not only of the Italian Concerto Grosso style, but also touches reminiscent of the gallant style of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788). There are too a lot of musical set pieces, as well as a clear dominance of the alternating orchestral and solo segments typical of the Ritornell form. Original inspiration and individually styled movements, such as the atmospherically thick andante from the A major concerto or the Presto from the B major key concerto, are unfortunately all too rare.
Four violins and a viola, with a contrabass and harpsichord as bass accompaniment, create a chamber-musical ambience with a harmonious foundation. The principal musical action is played out between the cello and the first violin, generating an entertaining and lively dialogue. While Richard Tunnicliffe, himself a member of the viola ensemble “Fretwork”, and principal cellist in the Avison Ensemble, cannot help but convince with his unobtrusive performance, his bowing on an instrument of 1730 produces too little volume, too little warmth. Added to which the C and G strings produce a strikingly metallic sound. The fact that the solo cadenzas to be heard here are all written by Tunnicliffe is another mark against him. Pavlo Beznosiuk, on the other hand, shines as leader of the ensemble with his baroque violin dating from the year 1676.
The cello concerts of John Garth are entirely pleasant to the ear. But it is not worth listening to more than two at a time, because their similarity makes the experience repetitive. The booklet provides substantial information about the life and work of the composer, but unfortunately only in English.
Interpretation 3/5; Sound quality 4/5; Repertoire 4/5; Booklet 2/5
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