It still happens now and then that music manuscripts are discovered. Sometimes they contain music which is known to have existed and somehow has gone missing. Sometimes these manuscripts contain music which was hitherto completely unknown. That is the case with the Concerti grossi by Charles Avison recorded here. We know he arranged keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti as concerti grossi, and we also know about his admiration for Francesco Geminiani. But nobody knew that Avison also arranged violin sonatas by his hero as concerti grossi. “They were discovered in the second of two of Avison’s workbooks that suddenly appeared in the years 2000 and 2002 respectively. Consisting of more than 600 pages of music hidden from view for over two centuries, these two books add significantly to Avison’s repertoire and reputation”, Mark Kroll writes in the programme notes.
Francesco Geminiani was born in 1687 in Lucca, and probably received his first musical education from his father, who was a violinist. It is assumed that among his later teachers were Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti, but although he is thought to have been in Rome from 1704 to 1706 there is no firm evidence for this. That he was close to Arcangelo Corelli is a fact, since in the foreword to ‘A Treatise of Good Taste in the Art of Musick’, which was published in 1749, he refers to discussions with Corelli about his music. In 1714 he left Italy for England, probably because he didn’t see any real chance of a career either in Rome or in Naples, where he also spent some time. And as England had attracted other musicians from Italy before it was a logical choice to try to find employment there.
In England he found fertile soil: admiration for Italy and the Italian music was widespread, and there were ample opportunities to perform and to teach. In England Geminiani found his first patron in the person of Baron Johann Adolf Kielmannsegg. It was he who arranged a public performance with the king in attendance, in which Geminiani was accompanied by Handel at the harpsichord. It was also Kielmannsegg to whom Geminiani dedicated his 12 sonatas for violin and b.c. opus 1. This collection had considerable success, and as the sonatas were stylistically close to Corelli he could convincingly present himself as Corelli’s pupil.
Charles Avison was born in 1709 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in the north of England, where he received his first musical training from his father, who was one of the city waits. From 1724 to 1735 he stayed in London to further his musical education, and then returned to Newcastle, where he stayed the rest of his life and played an important role in musical life. During his time in London he met Francesco Geminiani, who made a lasting impression on him. His admiration for the Italian master was such that in ‘An Essay on Musical Expression’, which was published in 1752, he claimed Geminiani to be a better composer than Handel. This caused a vivid debate as many of his colleagues strongly disagreed and defended Handel against what they considered an unfair attack.
The influence of Geminiani is reflected in Avison’s own compositions, like the Concerti Grossi op. 6 – also recorded by the Avison Ensemble. His admiration also made him arrange the sonatas opus 1. He turned them into concerti grossi for seven instrumental parts, divided into two groups: the ‘concertino’ – consisting of the instruments who play the solo sections – and the ‘ripieno’, the full ensemble. The manuscript contains only ten concertos, as it seems Avison didn’t arrange the Sonata No 11. For this recording Pavlo Beznosiuk made his own arrangement of this sonata. As much as I admire the result I don’t see the point. If one wants to present the arrangements by Avison, then why fill in what he – for whatever reason – left out?
The Twelve sonatas by Geminiani are of the two then-usual types of ‘sonata da chiesa’ (Sonatas 1 – 6) and ‘sonata da camera’ (Sonatas 7 – 12), although the tempo indications don’t show any difference. The sonatas of the second half contain several dance movements, but are still referred to as vivace, andante or allegro.
Although Geminiani remained his hero all his life Avison wasn’t a conservative composer, let alone a Geminiani clone. In his Concertos op. 6 mentioned above he composed four concertos in which he made use of the modern sonata form. And in these arrangements of Geminiani’s sonatas opus 1 he doesn’t slavishly follow his model either. The most interesting example is the Concerto grosso No 6 in g minor, which ends with an andante. Here Avison adds a lengthy passage of his own, a theme with variations in two parts, after which the original andante by Geminiani is to be repeated. Avison refers to the andante as ‘menuet’, and this last movement is in fact a combination of menuet and trio – one of the most popular forms of the emerging classical style. The way this theme with variations should be played is a bit of a problem. Mark Kroll sees performance on a harpsichord as a possibility, but considering the scoring of these concertos this seems rather odd. The option followed here, violin and cello, is much more convincing. The structure of this last movement remains rather unsatisfying, though: the duet is very long (more than 200 measures) meaning that the other instruments have to keep silent for about 10 minutes.
This set of concerti grossi is an important discovery. Not only is it a fine tribute to the art of Geminiani, but it also reflects the admiration for the master, not just by Avison, but by English music-lovers at large. It also reflects the quite usual practice of showing one’s admiration by arranging music of one’s hero. Geminiani once did the same, when he turned Corelli’s sonatas for violin and bc op. 5 into concerti grossi.
These performances are good but I have some reservations with regard to the sound, which I find a little sharp and – in the long run – a bit tiresome. Somewhat more variety in phrasing and articulation, more dynamic shades and in general a little more warmth and passion would have done this recording considerable good. I would advise listeners to assimilate this set gradually, and not at a sustained stretch as I have done. These concertos give plenty of evidence of Avison’s great qualities as a composer, and one can only hope other compositions – such as his chamber music and vocal works – are to be explored in due course.
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