The Classical Reviewer

John Garth (1721-1810) was baptised in the parish church of Witton-le-Wear in County Durham, England. His first post was as organist at St. Edmund’s Church in Sedgefield, later becoming organist to the Bishop of Durham at his official residence at Auckland Castle. He made the acquaintance of another prominent composer from the North East of England, Charles Avison with whom he was to later organise concerts in Durham.

His compositions include Cello Concertos, Op.1, Organ Voluntaries, Op.3 and five sets of accompanied keyboard sonatas of which the Op.2 and Op.4 sets have been recorded by Divine Art Recordings.

Fortepianist and harpsichordist, Gary Cooper joins the Avison Ensemble on this new 2 CD release. Divine Art have already released an acclaimed recording of Garth’s six cello concertos (DDA 25059) as well as a number of recordings of the music of Charles Avison featuring the Avison Ensemble. I already know just how good this ensemble is and have a number of their Avison recordings on my shelves.

The members of the Avison Ensemble for these performances consist of Pavlo Beznosiuk and Caroline Balding (violins) and Richard Tunnicliffe (cello).

First on this new set are the six sonatas, Op.2, published in 1768, each of which are in two movements. In the Sonata in G major, Op.2 No.1 it is immediately apparent what a fine sound these four players make in Garth’s lively Allegro with its winning tune. There are lovely harpsichord flourishes around the superb string textures. There is a joyful Rondeau: Allegro with a lovely forward flow and a fine central section with lovely interplay between strings and harpsichord.

For the Sonata in F major, Op.2 No.2 Gary Cooper moves to the fortepiano. There is a fine balance between fortepiano and strings in this nicely textured Allegro that has a more delicate texture and some terrific playing from Gary Cooper. The Presto has some fine long lines with these players providing a terrific blend of textures. Gary Cooper is so fluent in the fortepiano part.

Cooper returns to the harpsichord for Sonata in C minor, Op.2 No.3 in which the Allegro has an appealing melody, nicely pointed up by the harpsichord in the opening. Indeed there is something of an equal partnership in this movement with the harpsichord providing much of the accompaniment. The Tempo di minuetto has a lovely rhythmic flow with some very attractive moments for the harpsichord, but it is the strings that provide the lovely textures.

Gary Cooper plays the organ for Sonata in E flat major, Op.2 No.4 where in the Allegro moderato the strings again dominate in the opening before the organ takes the prominent role. The organ has a suitably small sound that fits well with the ensemble. Again Garth provides another memorable tune. The short Rondeau: Presto is full of life and good humour.

Garth’s writing for harpsichord is most attractive providing transparency and fine textures. In the Allegro of Sonata in A major, Op.2 No.5 Gary Cooper is terrific with superb articulation and a great sense of phrasing. Nobody could fail to be entranced by this music which has some fine interplay between strings and harpsichord. There is lovely string playing in the lilting Tempo di minuetto that has a lovely flow and rhythm.

For the final sonata of this set, Sonata in E major, Op.2 No.6, Cooper returns to the fortepiano. There is another attractive rising and falling theme in the Moderato with some lovely moments for fortepiano. A sparkling Presto with some really fine playing from these artists and some particularly florid passages for fortepiano ends this piece.

There is much variety in the Op.2 sonatas with Garth’s memorable themes a particularly attractive feature.

The six sonatas Op.4, from around 1772, are also in a two movement form. Sonata in C major, Op.4 No.1 has another fine opening, an Allegro , though this time with a little more thoughtfulness in its forward movement. Again the sounds these players provide are terrific with vibrant harpsichord and the full, yet transparent, combination of two violins and cello. There are some lovely passages for harpsichord, brilliantly played by Cooper. The Vivace has a nice swagger to it, a lovely spring in its rhythms.

Sonata in E minor, Op.4 No.2 brings Gary Cooper back to the fortepiano with a terrific Allegro that hurtles along with an infectious rhythmic melody. These players are so full of vitality not to mention superb musicianship. The Tempo di minuetto is another of Garth’s fine movements in this form.

The Allegro moderato of Sonata in B flat major, Op.4 No.3 has a lovely, well sprung theme with these players providing a terrific rhythmic quality before the leisurely, flowing Tempo di minuetto with some particularly beautiful, quieter passages where the harpsichord gently shows and combines with the strings.

Returning to the harpsichord, Gary Cooper hurtles off in the Allegro assai of Sonata in D major, Op.4 No.4 whilst there is buoyant playing from the strings in this infectious movement. The lovely Tempo di gavotta: Allegro has a simple yet very attractive tune with these players weaving wonders around the music.

Sonata in E flat major, Op.4 No.5 opens with a lovely, fresh Allegro with the harpsichord and strings responding to each other in the attractive theme. Again there are some fine solo passages for harpsichord, fabulously played. The second movement is a fast moving Spiritoso that receives equally fine playing from these artists.

Gary Cooper turns to the organ for this final sonata of this set, Sonata in G minor, Op.4 No.6, a work that has as much attraction as some of Handel’s organ concertos. There is a breadth and freshness to the Allegro that is wholly appealing in another of Garth’s fine melodies and a distinctive beautifully turned Rondeau: Allegro that makes for a fine conclusion to this first rate release.

I notice that I have use the word infectious a number of times in this review but that is the only word to describe these performances. The playing of Gary Cooper and the Avison Ensemble has so much verve and life in sonatas that are full of fine tunes that stick in the mind long after listening to them.

The recording, from the fine acoustic of St Martin’s Church, East Woodhay, Hampshire, England, is excellent and there are interesting notes giving the background to John Garth and the music making in his home area of Durham.

This is a highly desirable issue that will give endless enjoyment.

—Bruce Reader