The Consort

These two CDs include 12 accompanied keyboard sonatas by the Durham composer John Garth (1721-1810). The two violinists and cellist of the Avison Ensemble are joined in this recording by Gary Cooper, who navigates between harpsichord, fortepiano and organ. There is a link between the Garth accompanied keyboard sonatas and the Corelli church sonatas , in that exactly the same four players required for the latter (in its most common line-up) can be retained for the former, the keyboard player now assuming the role of a soloist – the sonatas are designed to be playable on keyboard alone – and the strings dropping back into a supportive role.

These compositions are, so to speak, reformulated trio sonatas: they replace the classic Corellian musical language with an up-to-date idiom which reflects on one hand the mid-century Italian harpsichord style of Domenico Scarlatti, Giovanni Platti and Domenico Paradies, predominant in the sonata-form opening movements, and on the other hand a more French-inflected style, predominant in the many rondos and minuets found in the shorter and simpler concluding second movements.

This special type of accompanied sonata represents, as Simon Fleming’s excellent notes explain, a specifically ‘north-eastern’ brand originated by Charles Avison. Garth in fact produced no fewer than five collections following that model: op.2 (1768: the most successful commercially in its day), op.4 (c.1762) and opp.5-7 (c.1775-1782: still awaiting recording).

The task of reviewing this recording induced me to explore for comparison Garth’s better-known set of cello concertos, recorded in 2007 on dda 25059 by the same ensemble, since until now I had known this composer only from his English-language edition of Marcello’s Psalms. In the concertos and sonatas alike, Garth’s musical personality is not particularly original, but his works possess a combination of intensity of expression coupled with compositional proficiency (allowing for a few slightly rough harmonic progressions) that makes them enjoyable and worthwhile as concert pieces.

The performance of the sonatas by the Avison Ensemble is vivid (perhaps a little too fiercely so) and committed. I occasionally found the balance wanting: in particular, the harpsichord tone frequently lacks power, thereby creating the illusion that these pieces are conventional trio sonatas supported by a continuo player lazily doubling the string lines.

Garth emerges from this recording as a thoroughly good composer whose music would merit publication in commercial editions. Works of this kind would prove very useful in recitals given by trio sonata ensembles, by rewarding harpsichordists with a moment of glory without forcing any of their partners to vacate the concert platform.

—Michael Talbot