MusicWeb International

Recording of the Month November 2010

With each new release of Charles Avison’s music something is becoming clearer; his standing as a composer is significantly higher than might be supposed. Partly this is historical; he composed when the country’s music-making was dominated by Handel, and partly geographical, since he lived in Newcastle. It’s true that his position as a composer was unchallenged in the North-East, but that cut little ice with the Metropolitan elite in London, and the paucity of recordings, until very recently, reflected his ‘backwater’ status.

Fortunately recordings such as this and others have begun to show just how adaptable, personable, imaginative and clever is his writing. His accompanied keyboard sonatas are in three sets. Op.5 was published in 1756, followed by op.7 in 1760 and op.8 four years later. In this two disc set we hear opp. 5 and 7. Avison was an eloquent admirer of his contemporaries and forebears, taking pains in his advertisement for the op.8 set to cite Scarlatti, Rameau, Geminiani and C.P.E. Bach by name. His opinion of Handel was not unmixed. The genesis for this kind of work was a compound of Corellian procedure and Rameau’s 1741 Pièces de Clavecin. The cleverness of Avison lies in his accommodation of both forms, and in his ability successfully to utilise them to his own devices. The sonatas were not intended for public performance, but rather for ‘private amusement’. The keyboard part is complete in and of itself (so an amateur could play the part on his own), the string writing acting as a supporting fabric to the harpsichord. There are no solo flourishes from the strings.

The op. 5 set consists of six multi-movement works, some four, some two, and one in three movements. All are compact and full of lively music making. Maybe there are hints of a Scotch Snap in the opening of the First, in G major. What’s undeniable is the fecundity of invention, the warm textures of the Minuet, the lightly contoured cello drone in the Allegretto finale and ensuing folkloric inflexions. Not only is Avison’s writing broad-minded and full of thematic interest, but the performances by Gary Cooper and his eminent cohorts fully worthy of it; the combination is outstanding in every way. Avison has a real sense of character and sometimes quirkiness. The second movement of the two-movement second sonata is the more unpredictable and original and keeps one on one’s aural toes throughout. It’s very cleverly composed, very fluid thematically, and passing Handelian moments – or moments that seem Handelian maybe in retrospect – only add to the mélange. The Andante of the Third has the lyric qualities of a John Stanley, whilst the Siciliana of the Fourth flows as sweetly as a fresh stream. The performers all catch the brisk articulation of the following Aria – spiritoso , as marked.

In 1760 the op.7 collection was published. Apart from the fifth, which is in three movements, all the others are written in two. The presto opening of the second has an almost operatic intensity, but also compression. There’s decorative melancholy in the opening of the third whilst the opening of the fourth is more explicitly expressive, in a way that begs the question as to whether Avison wrote oratorios? The finale of this sonata is theatrical and fulsome, the Ciacone of the sixth sprightly and life-enhancing.

Recording quality (first class), performances and music come together in a wholly splendid way in this disc, one which advances Avison’s cause still further.

—Jonathan Woolf