The Avison Ensemble is a pioneer in the exploration of repertoire written in north-east England, the region around Newcastle-upon-Tyne where Charles Avison worked most of his life. The largest part of his oeuvre has been recorded, and with this disc of music by John Garth the ensemble turns its attention to a friend and probable pupil of Avison. He was born in Durham and after finishing his musical education worked as organist at St Edmund’s Church in Sedgefield. He also became organist to the Bishop of Durham at his official residence, Auckland Castle. As an organist Garth was highly esteemed: he travelled far to give recitals and was asked to inaugurate newly-built instruments.
In Durham he set up a concert series. His first attempt in 1742 was met with little enthusiasm from the cathedral’s organist whose choir was the dominant force in concert life. In 1752 he organised a subscription series, with the assistance of Avison, in direct competition to the series of the cathedral choir. The animosity gradually dissipated and in time the two series integrated. The fact that the cathedral had a new organist in the person of Thomas Ebdon probably facilitated this process. Together they promoted the concert series until 1772 when Garth gave up his activities in this field. However, it is possible that he continued to play at concerts in Durham.
He may have performed some of the sonatas recorded here. The accompanied keyboard sonata was quite popular at the time, not only in England but also on the continent, for instance in France. The two series of six sonatas which are the subject of this set, were printed in 1768 and c.1772 respectively. The fact that the op. 2 set had 261 subscribers for 323 copies shows the reputation of Garth as a composer. Among the subscribers were famous names such as Charles Burney, James Nares and John Stanley. The sonatas are all in two movements: an allegro, followed by a piece in the form of a rondeau or a menuet. This is music for domestic entertainment, playable by amateurs. The strings play a subordinate role and only support the keyboard.
Several sonatas include crescendo markings. This “gives an indication that several of them were conceived for either a pianoforte, or for one of the new developments in harpsichord-making that made subtle changes in dynamics possible”, according to Simon D.I. Fleming in the liner-notes. The latter seems more plausible than the former. Although the new pianoforte was known in England before 1750 it was only in the 1770s that it started to establish itself as an alternative to the harpsichord, especially in the London concert scene. That is not to say that it was also a common instrument elsewhere, and I especially wonder whether amateurs played such instruments at the time Garth published his sonatas.
Some of the sonatas here are played at the organ. This could be inspired by the possibility that Garth – or other organists – may have played sonatas from these sets in public concerts. There is also a possibility that some aristocrats owned a small organ. The use of an organ is probably more plausible than a pianoforte. It is a shame that the instruments which Gary Cooper plays are not specified in the booklet.
Musical entertainment for amateurs – that could suggest that this is music which is hardly memorable and goes in one ear and out the other. My experience is different. It was not hard at all to listen to these sonatas at a stretch. This is delightful music, very well written and with plenty of good themes. There is never a dull moment here, and that is also due to the interpreters. Gary Cooper, Pavlo Beznosiuk, Caroline Balding and Richard Tunnicliffe [sic] deliver energetic and differentiated performances. This has resulted in a highly entertaining set of discs, and it is a bit of a mystery to me why these have been on the shelf for six years.