Two apologies are due, first to Avison himself and then to his eponymous ensemble. When I first encountered his music, on an early Academy of St Martin’s recording of an anthology of eighteenth-century music on Oiseau-Lyre, later reissued on Decca Ace of Diamonds, I thought he was French: try pronouncing it as if it were a French name – it works. I knew that he had worked in Newcastle and Durham but, with the typical arrogance of one who escaped from the North to study at Oxford and then to live in London, I assumed that no good thing could come out of eighteenth-century England, das Land ohne Musik , let alone Newcastle. Sincere apologies to all those in the North East; I soon discovered my error.
Secondly, though I have heard the Avison Ensemble on BBC Radio 3, I hadn’t realised what an accomplished and professional group they are – I’d thought of them as very talented amateurs.
The Avison Ensemble have already recorded the music of their namesake for Naxos and Divine Art. Their 2-CD recording of the Concerti Grossi, Op. 6 on Naxos 8.557553-4 was welcomed by Jonathan Woolf and Johan van Veen as doing Avison proud. Robert Hugill was equally appreciative of their later recording of Opp. 3 and 4 (8.557905-6).
Having switched to the Divine Art label, the Ensemble recently recorded the newly-discovered set of Concertos after Geminiani’s Op.1, not to be confused with his re-workings of Scarlatti, to the satisfaction of JV again, though he had some reservations about the recorded sound – (DDA21210). Divine Art already have a recording of some of the Op.9 concertos in their catalogue, performed in the alternative scaled-down versions by The Georgian Ensemble (24108), performances which David Wright thought a little lacking in spirit in the faster music. I think DW would have found what he was looking for in these Avison Ensemble recordings of the complete Op.9 and Op.10.
Let me get one grumble out of the way first. I thought I was the only person to notice the growing tendency of recording engineers to hide the continuo, even on opera DVDs where the conductor is clearly seated at the harpsichord, sometimes with a second harpsichordist and theorbo player to boot. Only with the advent of the larger classical orchestra did the harpsichord become inaudible – hence Haydn’s joke in giving it a prominent little part of its own at the end of Symphony No.98. we should be able to hear it, though not too prominently, in baroque music, especially when someone has gone to the trouble of writing out the continuo in Op.10 which Avison left incomplete.
Now I note that another review of these Avison Ensemble recordings has queried the comparative inaudibility of the harpsichord – and Divine Art have had the honesty to post the whole review on their web-page, not just the complimentary part. Thank goodness that I’m now not the only person to draw attention to the Emperor’s new clothes. In fact, the continuo is intermittently audible on these recordings, but you have to listen hard for it and it’s really no more prominent than on the ASMF modern-instrument recording of the Avison-Scarlatti concerti which I mention below.
Otherwise these concerti, though coming late in Avison’s composing career, show little diminution of inventiveness from his Op.6 set and the Scarlatti and Geminiani adaptations. By the time that he wrote these works, their form would have sounded decidedly old-fashioned, in that they still evidently hark back to the music of Geminiani, who probably tutored Avison in London, and Geminiani’s own model Corelli. There is just the occasional hint of the galant style but those who had heard the music of J C Bach, who was established in London seven years before the first of these concerti were published, must have thought this more like the music of JC’s father. Avison was equally puzzled by the new-fangled; he wrote in the Newcastle Literary Register in 1769 that he wondered “where the powers of music are fled, not to harmonize the passions of men.” What would he have thought if he had lived to hear Beethoven’s late quartets?
We must not, however, berate him as stick-in-the-mud – I’m afraid you could call me that in respect of much music post-Schoenberg – but appreciate what he has to offer, which is a great deal indeed. As JV points out in his review of the Avison-Geminiani concertos, he was no mere clone of Geminiani or anyone else. The least that can be said of this music is that it is exceedingly well-crafted and often memorable. The notes in the booklet rather imply that Avison had gone off the boil a little by 1769, when he was 60. I didn’t find it so – I think I’d passed my sell-by date at 60 far more than Avison.
These are excellent performances, preferably to be dipped into rather than heard complete: like JV, I found myself suffering from an excess of good things after listening to both CDs – and these two discs are more generously filled than the two which he heard. Those with an aversion to period instruments need have no fear: there are no raw or rough edges to the playing – if anything, I might have liked a little more of a feeling that the players weren’t so adept as to make it all sound easy; I’m sure it isn’t. With tasteful ornamentation where appropriate and a willingness to give the music a bit of a lift, these are excellent performances, just a little brighter than the ASMF on that Ace of Diamonds recording or on the Philips Duo listed below.
Apart from the near-inaudibility of the continuo, the recording is excellent. I found a slight reduction from my normal listening volume to be beneficial, otherwise the Ensemble sounds a little larger than the modest proportions listed in the booklet.
The notes by Simon Fleming are helpful and informative. The members of the Ensemble are individually named and details given of the period instruments or copies which they play. I wish all record companies were as forthcoming as this: I recently found it difficult to be sure that a particular orchestra played modern instruments, albeit with a sense of period style, when their label, Dynamic, failed to make this clear.
If these performances lead you to wish to explore Avison further, you could do much worse than the other Divine Art recording which I have mentioned – and their web-site announces that they are planning to offer his complete works by the end of 2009. Several Divine Art recordings should be available to download from Chandos’s theclassicalshop.net, but the links there lead to the ‘unavailable’ page. The Avison-Geminiani concertos are available from eMusic but, with a total of 43 tracks, they would make a very large hole in any monthly allocation and cost almost as much as buying the CDs direct from Divine Art. The iTunes price is even more expensive than buying the CDs, when Divine Art currently offer this set as a two-for-one bargain.
Otherwise, try the Naxos Op.6 recording first. Alternatively, since Avison was such a master of arranging the sonatas of Italian composers as concerti grossi, as the Geminiani set shows, you may wish to see what he made of twelve of Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas. Mark Sealey confidently recommended the Hyperion reissue of the performances by The Brandenburg Consort on the two-for-one Dyad label (CDD22060) The Philips Duo version of these appears to have been deleted, very serviceable performances from ASMF/Neville Marriner – remainders would be well worth looking out for (438 806-2) or perhaps Australian Eloquence will oblige with a reissue. Those who prefer modern instruments will find the ASMF almost as lively and stylish in this music as their period-instrument competitors – just a little too rounded and ‘comfortable’.
Don’t forget the music of Avison’s contemporary, William Boyce, which I also got to know first from that Neville Marriner Ace of Diamonds LP. You could do much worse than start with the Aradia Ensemble under Kevin Mallon on Naxos 8.557278, though I note that Jonathan Woolf thought this second-best to the mid-price AAM/Hogwood recording (473 081 2/
And if you want to hear the music of the next generation, try the Chichester Concert, whose Olympia recording of five symphonies by John Marsh, written in the 1770s, has just been reissued at super-budget price by Alto. These are accomplished performances on copies of period instruments – I shall certainly be buying the Alto reissue of their recording (ALC1017), since my copy of the Olympia has developed an unfortunate repeating groove.
I understand that these two well-filled Divine Art CDs are being offered for the price of one – an additional incentive, if one were required, to obtain them. That would make them eligible for nomination as Bargain of the Month, but I have another candidate in mind as a possible for that title.