I’m not entirely convinced of the musical worth of the 18th century Durham composer and organist John Garth’s charming, insubstantial accompanied keyboard sonatas. But if any band was capable of convincing me, it would be superb British early music outfit The Avison Ensemble, whose recordings not only of their namesake’s music but that of Vivaldi, Handel and Corelli are renowned for a refined gutsiness that is quite unique. Their recording of Avison’s Concerto Grossi after Domenico Scarlatti is especially fine.
Garth (c.1721-1810) was good friends with Avison, who was also an exponent of the accompanied keyboard sonata, which as the Grove Dictionary reliably has it was “used almost exclusively by composers in north-east England (Avison, Ebdon and Hawdon as well as Garth) where a trio sonata ensemble of two violins, cello and harpsichord is required, with the strings either doubling the harpsichord, providing harmonic support or resting.”
The Avisons have already explored Garth’s tuneful, original Opus 1 Cello Concertos- Garth played cello in Avison’s Newcastle concert series- with the present cellist Richard Tunnicliffe as soloist. Here Pavlo Beznosiuk, violinist Caroline Balding and Tunnicliffe accompany keyboardist Gary Cooper for Garth’s first two sets of keyboard sonatas (he wrote five in total).
Cooper uses three different types of instruments; some of the sonatas feature dynamic markings in the score and may have been intended to be played on the fortepiano. The change in timbre from harpsichord to fortepiano to organ is both effective and welcome, while the string playing is as finely differentiated and engaging as Cooper’s sparkling keyboard work.
Sometimes, however – and this is obvious right away in the opening Allegro of the Opus 2 set – the string sound is too forward, resulting in a lack of clarity. Given the string parts are for the most part mere doublings of the keyboard part, which can happily stand alone if need be, this is not such a good thing.
That aside, there is still much to enjoy here. The dramatic Allegro of the C Minor Sonata, again from the Opus 2 set, is striking in its contained passion and finds its cousin in the final G Minor Sonata of the later set, here forcefully realised with organ. The E Flat Major Allegro of the sonata preceding it – Cooper opts for harpsichord this time – is one of the best and most substantial, with rare fugal writing and a more complex texture overall.