Writing about a composer and performing his music are two different things. The article on Charles Avison in New Grove says that he was “the most important English concerto composer of the 18th century and an original and influential writer on music”. For many years this was not reflected in the number of recordings of his oeuvre. This has changed mainly thanks to the Avison Ensemble. Over the last six years they have recorded most of Avison’s compositions. Whereas music-lovers are inclined to think about such a relatively obscure composer as a “minor master”, these recordings reveal that his music is of a consistently high level.
Avison played a key role in the musical life of the North East of England, but through his writings and the dissemination of his music his reputation spread throughout England and beyond. Among posts which were offered to him were two jobs as organist in Dublin, and a position as teacher in Edinburgh. He declined them all and instead remained in Newcastle-upon-Tyne where he was born and where he also died.
Avison was a prolific composer of concerti grossi, which reflect the influence of his hero, Francesco Geminiani. The fact that he rated Geminiani higher than Handel made him quite a controversial figure in England. But there is also another side to Avison as this set of discs shows. The sets each comprise six sonatas for harpsichord with additional parts for two violins and cello. These show the influence of Jean-Philippe Rameau, a composer Avison rated highly, and whose Pièces de clavecin en concert he performed at public concerts. Like Rameau’s Pièces the sonatas from both collections can be performed by harpsichord alone. The violins and the cello reinforce the various lines of the keyboard. In a way they show the framework of these sonatas, because the keyboard parts are highly decorated and contain many additional notes and arpeggios.
Although one may assume Avison performed some of these sonatas during public concerts they were written for amateurs to play. Considering the technical level of the keyboard parts one can only conclude that these amateurs were highly capable. Some movements could well be part of a keyboard concerto: try the opening presto of the Sonata No. 2 in g minor from Op. 7. These sonatas show that Avison was not a representative of the galant idiom, with its fluent keyboard parts which were technically not too demanding and were mainly written to please the ear.
From this perspective these sonatas could be considered old-fashioned, but several features are rather modern. Firstly, most sonatas are in major keys: in the whole of Op. 5 there are no sonatas in the minor at all and there’s little in thwe way of deep thought or dark feelings in these two sets. One of the most expressive movements is the opening andante from the Sonata No. 4 in d minor from Op. 7. Secondly, although they largely follow the model of the sonata da chiesa Avison often reduces the number of movements to three or even two. Op. 7 has just one sonata in three movements, whereas all others are in two – which was a feature of the diverting music of the mid-18th century. Lastly, the very form of a sonata for keyboard with instrumental parts ad libitum was quite modern. Rameau was one of the first to write such pieces, and they became fashionable later in the 18th century. In Germany Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was one of the composers who essayed such sonatas, and in France someone like Johann Schobert also wrote a number of pieces using this scoring.
These two sets of sonatas were written for the entertainment of amateurs, and are still able to reach out and appeal to music-lovers today. That is even more the case when they are played with so much fire and passion as by the members of the Avison Ensemble. Gary Cooper plays the keyboard parts brilliantly, with technical perfection and artistic fervour. This way he emphasizes that Avison is much more than a “minor master”; in fact a composer of some excellence.
His huge admiration for Geminiani may have given him a somewhat questionable reputation. Clearly he was an original mind who wrote music on the basis of well-considered stylistic criteria. Pavlo Beznosiuk, Caroline Balding and Robin Michael give excellent support and lend additional colour to the keyboard parts.
As always the recordings of the Avison Ensemble come with exemplary booklets which provide the listener with all the necessary information. The recording leaves nothing to be desired. In short, this set offers almost two hours of first-rate musical entertainment.
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