After many years of long neglect the oeuvre of Charles Avison has recently been explored extensively. As a result the largest part of his output is now available on disc. The Avison Ensemble has played an important part in its rediscovery.
A look at the website of the ensemble (http://www.avisonensemble.com) reveals that his complete concertos have been recorded. With this disc two of his collections of chamber music are made available. That leaves two other collections of six sonatas each, the opp. 5 and 7, which contain sonatas in the same scoring as the op. 8 on this set. In addition there is some vocal music, including English adaptations of the 50 Psalms on Italian texts by Ben edetto Marcello. As these psalm settings are very expressive I am curious to know how they sound in Avison’s arrangements. It is to be hoped that we will get to hear them at some time.
So what about the chamber music which is the subject of this production? The two sets of sonatas are very different in character. The op. 1 follows the model of the sonata da chiesa as it was standardized by Arcangelo Corelli. Each is in four movements: slow – fast – slow – fast. They are well written and show a lot of variety. What makes them especially noteworthy is the amount of expression to be heard in particular through harmonic means.
The first sonata begins with a very short and dark adagio, which – after a general pause – is followed by an andante. The difference is not as clear as one would wish, since the andante is a bit too slow. The opening andante of the Sonata No. 2 is an example of a movement with a lot of harmonic tension. In this sonata it is also remarkable that the second movement – an allegro – merges into the next without a break.
The adagio of the Sonata No. 3 contains some dissonances, and is followed by a sparkling allegro with echo effects. The second movement of the Sonata No. 4, in which there is frequent imitation between the violins, is quite dramatic. Another dark-coloured adagio opens the Sonata No. 5, whereas the second adagio is full of harmonic tension. The closing allegro is dominated by little dynamic accents.
This is a captivating collection of sonatas, which is given outstanding and expressive performances. The ensemble is excellent, and the balance between the instruments is just right. Two things which seem to belong to the modern fashion in the performance of baroque music are happily absent here. There is no continuous shift from harpsichord to organ and vice versa in the basso continuo, and there is no lute or theorbo in sight.
With the op. 8 set we move to another world. These sonatas are modelled after the Pièces de clavecin en concert by Jean-Philippe Rameau. The strings just emphasize and give colour to lines of the keyboard part, but offer no original material. Accordingly these sonatas can also be played on keyboard alone. In light of this I think the balance is a little less than ideal. I would have liked less presence from the strings. At some points they are just a shade obtrusive.
These are nice pieces but not at the same level as those of Rameau. They lack the wit and playfulness to be found in the latter’s Pièces. That said there is much to enjoy, even though the character of the various sonatas isn’t always done fullest justice. The first movement of the Sonata No. 1 has the character indication ‘andante cantabile’, but it doesn’t sound very cantabile to me. It is rather ponderous, mostly due to the heavy accents in the keyboard part. This is much more appropriate in the first movement of the Sonata No. 3, called ‘marcia andante’.
The Sonata No. 2 is quite playful, but in the second allegro it comes much more to the fore than in the opening allegro, which is a bit too slow. The most sparkling movement of this set is the presto from the Sonata No. 4 which is given a fine performance in an appropriate tempo. The last piece is a set of variations, a habit which was not uncommon at the time. Corelli, for instance, closed his op. 5 – sonatas for violin and bc – with a set of variations on La Folia . The theme of the variations is very nice, and Avison has written beautiful variations on this subject. The ending is quite surprising, but I am not sure to what extent this was required by Avison or a dash of artistic freedom from the performers. Don’t worry, it is all within the rules as far as I can tell.
Slight critical remarks aside this is an enjoyable set with music which varies from expressive to entertaining. The Avison Ensemble is once again an eloquent advocate of the oeuvre of this master of the English baroque.
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