The Consort

Given the international climate of today’s early music scene, it is quite reassuring to encounter an English group like the Avison Ensemble. Formed in response to the discovery (by cellist Gordon Dixon) of a number of concertos by the Newcastle-born composer Charles Avison (1709-70), the ensemble focuses on the music of Avison and his contemporaries, and keeps its roots in Avison’s native northwest of England. Under the direction of violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk, and through several years of performing and recording Avison’s music, the group has developed a distinct ‘house style’ that truly sparkles in this recording.

An important writer on music, and a driving force behind concert life in the northwest, between 1740 and 1769 Avison published seven sets of concertos. Based on the Corellian model, and showing the influence of Avison’s teacher, Geminiani, Avison’s music is at once exuberant and stylish, avoiding the ‘rapid style of composition now in vogue’ in favour of ‘the native Charms of Melody’ and ‘the nobler Powers of Harmony’. This quotation, a critique of the contemporary galant idiom from the preface to the op.9 concerti, perhaps underestimates the composer’s own force of invention. Avison’s writing is indeed Italianate, but hugely varied, with highly dramatic moments (the D minor concerti from op.10 stand out here), Handelian grandeur (the E flat concerto from op.10 and C major from op.9), and Corellian simplicity (the F major from op.10).

Avison’s awareness, and use, of key colour is striking – the C major concerti have a very different character from the F major, and the G minor from the D minor, for example. I would be interested to know whether this was a feature of the composer’s theoretical writings – it certainly brings an impressive degree of variety to the disc.

The Avison Ensemble’s sound is warm, with a beautifully unified legato among the upper strings. The texture is thick, with a satisfyingly strong presence from the inner parts, so often the bearer of interesting lines in this music. The bass section is powerful without being overpowering, really coming to the fore in moments such as the dramatic interjections in the Largo of op.9 no.3. I occasionally miss a more plaintive texture in some of the affective slow movements, but the overall exuberance of the performance and the quality of the ensemble is utterly winning. Although Simon Fleming’s excellent programme notes describe the op.6 concerti as ‘Avison’s pinnacle’, the op. 9 and 10 have much to recommend them, and this double-CD set is a mine of varied and exciting music.

—Caroline Ritchie