|REVIEWS: divine art dda 21214 Avison: Opus 1 and 8 Sonatas|
INTERNATIONAL RECORD REVIEW:
Avison's six Op. 8 sonatas are markedly different, written for a solo keyboard that is musically self-sufficient, but with two ad lib violins and cello. They reflect his admiration, acknowledged in his ‘Advertisement' for Rameau and CPE Bach. The sonority suffers from his astringent tone of high violins, avoiding competition with the harpsichord's middle register, while some of the music is frankly uninspired – harmonic minimalism in a March, a banal folk-like melody as the basis for a set of variations, but no less a light diversion now than in 18 th-century Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
INTERNATIONAL RECORD REVIEW:
Charles Avison, whose mature musical activities were largely centred on Newcastle-upon-Tyne, lived from 1709 to 1770, and he never quite faded from view owing to the seminal nature of his 1752 Essay on Musical Expression . The Ensemble who have bravely borrowed his name can already proudly point to a number of successful recordings of his music; including the Concertos, Opp. 3, 4 and 6 for Naxos, as well as the Concerti grossi , Opp. 9 and 10 and Avison's orchestral expansions of instrumental sonatas by Scarlatti and by Avison's own mentor Geminiani, on the present enterprising label. (We are promised, as a final installment, the Sonatas, Opp. 5 and 7 later this year.)
The dozen sonatas here were actually recorded over three years ago, with ideal sound, using historically informed practice, on historic instruments or, in the case of the keyboards, excellent-sounding period copies; it has been well worth the wait, for Avison proves as inventive here as elsewhere. More so, perhaps, in Op. 8 than in Op. 1 – some 27 years separate their publication, and since the earlier set dates from 1737, when Avison was in his twenties and still under the spell of Geminiani and Corelli in London, perhaps that should not surprise us. All the same, one can be impressed by the dark-hued sounds that are the predominant feature of these Trio Sonatas, Op. 1; all bar the last are in minor keys (the first is even headed ‘in chromatic Dorian mode'), and all are in the standard four-movement slow-fast, slow-fast sonata da chiesa format. Simon Fleming's thoroughly readable note wonders whether they really were actually intended for execution in church, but it is difficult to feel that the alternatives, public entertainment or private music-making, would quite lend themselves to such severity of utterance. The small portative organ used for these pieces by Robert Howarth is ideal for the purpose.
For the later Op. 8 set, which did not appear until 1764, the harpsichord he uses is a Taskin copy, and in them he deploys some remarkable and unflashy virtuosity; some of the keyboard writing is flamboyant, but executed with seeming ease. These pieces were anyway originally advertised as keyboard sonatas with accompaniment for two violins and a bass – although that is not always what one hears, since the violin parts are by no means mere embellishments, as the performers well understand. This time around, all the keys bar one are major, sonata da chiesa form gives way to simple pairs of movements (but now longer), and the Italian influence yields to Rameau, sometimes Handel, and very audibly Domenico Scarlatti; the opening movement of the D major is identified as a March, but there are similar four-square dotted rhythms at the start of the B flat (No. 4), and in both cases the repeated notes inevitably recall the Neapolitan master.
There are other surprises; the two movements of No. 2 are linked by a weirdly meandering ‘Interludio”, whose succeeding Allegro is full of character; quite simply, Avison is never predictable. That little set of variations at the end of Avison's Op, 8 is just the icing on the cake of a most desirable release.
Avison's chamber music also contains elements of the prevailing Italian style, whether in the older trio-sonata format or the newer ‘harpsichord with the accompaniment of two violins', and can be considered his greatest accomplishment. Unlike the concerti grossi, which are in many cases arrangements of earlier music by Corelli, Geminiani and Scarlatti, the sonatas are all original compositions, and in the case of the harpsichord sonatas, incorporate a newer, more extroverted, less ‘hide-bound' compositional style that points to concurrent developments in France and Germany, variously known as style gallant and empfindsamer Stil . The harpsichord sonatas, with their constantly scurrying 16 th notes, put quite a demand on the keyboard player. They sound for all intents and purposes like ‘chamber concertos'. I find it ironic that Avison write this music for the old-fashioned harpsichord, rather than the up-and-coming pianoforte. But the music would certainly lose much of its effervescent charm if it were played on the latter.
The Avison Ensemble was formed ‘several years ago' by the cellist Gordon Dixon with the express purpose – you guessed it – of performing recently discovered works of Avison. With all the concerti grossi now released on the Divine Art label, the group has turned its attention to the chamber music. The small group represented on the present recording contains two names that are likely to be well known on this side of the Atlantic: violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk and cellist Richard Tunnicliffe. Twenty-five years ago, of course, Beznosiuk was one of the young lions of the period-instrument movement in Britain; now he's one of its grand old men. Compared with other firebrand violinists who seem to get greater press coverage, Andrew Manze and Reinhard Goebel among them, I find Beznosiuk's playing to be just as imaginative but without the self-aggrandizement – in other words, his playing is always at the service of the music, His colleagues are equally fine, especially harpsichordist Robert Howarth, who breezes through the plethora of notes in the harpsichord sonatas as if they were proverbial pieces of cake. The sound of the ensemble, especially in the string-dominated trio sonatas, is surprisingly robust and gutsy – you won't hear any whining period violins on these CDs. Incidentally, the organ is used as a continuo keyboard in every movement of every trio sonata – I could have used more variety here, Why are early-music groups so averse to using the lute (therobo)? The combination of a lute with a chamber organ together with cello or gamba, is both historically correct and musically felicitous.
An exhaustive search through roughly two decade's worth of Fanfarei back issue – as well as all the Schwann catalogs I could lay my hands on – produced exactly one prior recording of Avison's chamber music: a single sonata that London Baroque recorded sometime in the 1980s for Amon Ra, now withdrawn. The present two-CD set would appear to be a first for most of these works, and it's complete, no less. Extensive notes on the composer, the music, the performers, and the instruments are provided. The recorded sound is just about ideal, with a very realistic recorded perspective, and – as indicated above – quite listenable string sound. Highly recommended.
MUSIC AND VISION:
The six Op. 1 trio sonatas are constructed on Corelli's model, and all but one are in either Dorian or minor mode. Intended for use in church, they postulate an organ as continuo instrument . Robert Howarth here makes use of a small modern chest organ, which blends beautifully with the strings . The sonata movements sometimes display a chromatic daring that suggests a composer of real originality and power . Equally striking is the warm expressiveness of the Andante that starts sonata No 2.
If Op 1 was dedicated with due decorum to a local member of parliament who was also an Avison patron, the very different Op. 8 works are essentially harpsichord concertos written for a gifted pupil. She was Mary Eleanor Bowes, heiress to coal estates, who was to become Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne. Avison considered that her spirited playing as harpsichordist and interest in the finest composers would conduct her 'to a perfect Execution, and true Taste in this Art'. Avison certainly set her many a technical conundrum in the six sonatas.
Robert Howarth is here the brilliant protagonist on a modern Parisian copy of a Taskin original. He possesses all Miss Bowes's musical virtues and probably more; but the engineers have not played him fair. The admirable strings of the Avison Ensemble are given too much prominence throughout, so that the keyboard part is sometimes only a shadow of itself. More's the pity, as the extrovert music demonstrates a very different side of this composer. The March, not so named, that starts Sonata No 4 has a eupeptic sense of well-being to bowl any regiment towards the front. And the finale of No 5 is energetically fugal without any reminder of church.
Few other Baroque works made use, at least explicitly, of the medieval and Renaissance modes, and the work is characteristic of a certain fantastic aspect in Avison 's music that's very nicely captured here by a group of British early music veterans styling themselves the Avison Ensemble. Ornamentation by violinists Pavlo Beznosiuk and Caroline Balding is frequent, with a bit of an explosive quality. Things get even more unusual with the second set of works on this two-disc release, the Six Sonatas for harpsichord, with accompaniment of two violins and cello, Op. 8 , first published in the late 1750s. These are neither inverted trio sonatas nor precursors to the Classical piano quartet but rather harpsichord works modeled on those of the French school, specifically Rameau , which might be accompanied by one or more stringed instruments. The harpsichord has the dominant role, with the strings providing simple harmonic support. The sonatas have from one to three movements (mostly there are two), with an intriguing lyricism combining with the French formality. They don't sound like any other chamber music of the period, and they're a nice find.
The sound environment of the album is unique. The players state their explicit aim of re-creating the sound the music would have had in its own day; they use original instruments and work in a late eighteenth century English house that gives the music a spacious, live quality, somehow unlike that of a church. Sample it, and you may want to try the whole release simply on this basis alone. A compelling, slightly weird late-Baroque release.
The Six Sonatas op. 1 was the first set of pieces which Avison published during, or shortly after, his period of study with Francesco Geminiani in London in the 1730s. It is not surprising, therefore, that these pieces are strongly influenced by this teacher, and from listening to them one would be forgiven for thinking that Handel might also have played a part in their development, except that Avison, throughout his career, maintained a poor opinion of the German composer. Avison wrote that Handel, although ‘Born with Genius capable of soaring the Heights, to suit the vitiated Taste of the Age … (he) lived in, descended to the lowest', a statement that must have done the composer few favours in Handel-loving London, and which may have been one of the reasons which caused him to eventually decided to base himself in Newcastle.
The op. 1 trios follow the sonatas da chiesa of Corelli closely in mood and structure, and musically they show Avison's first attempt at independence as a composer, departing from the style of his teachers. There are distinct signs of originality in the melodies, but his reliance on repetition (such as the use of a descending scale motif first heard in the fugal section of sonata no. 1) is typical of a composer who is till experimenting with, and needing to expand, his musical palette. The part-writing, however, is mature, and the violins and cello are skillfully blended so that no keyboard instrument is actually necessary (although the title page omits this fact).
In the sonatas op. 8 we encounter a different Avison: here we see a mature composer and virtuoso keyboard player displaying his prowess, and enjoying it. The harpsichord writing is brilliant, even dazzling at times, and displays an originality of style that is markedly different from the sonatas op. 1 Modelled on Rameau's Pièces de Clavecin en Concert , the op.8 sonatas are prototypes of the later classical piano trios of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, in which the role of the string and keyboard is reversed, and attention is drawn more towards the keyboard than to the violins and cello. The spirit of these pieces is a heady combination of the fire and heat of Scarlatti, the grotesque and the bizarre of Rameau, and the charm and grace of the pre-classical salon. I would recommend starting with track 3 of CD no.2, the A minor sonata (not C major as printed in the CD booklet), before listening to anything else.
The CDs feature Pavlo Beznosiuk and Caroline Balding on violins, Richard Tunnicliffe on cello and Robert Howard on organ (op.1) and harpsichord (op.8). The strings create a superb, well-blended sound, and offer a wide range of tonal colours and variety, but Howarth deserves special credit for his continuo rendition in op.1, and his exceptionally fine harpsichord playing in op.8. There is much to appreciate – and learn – from his subtle articulation and phrasing, while his bold, decisive, no-nonsense approach on the harpsichord is a relief from a world where delicacy and finesse can sometimes overtake flair and good judgement.
CLASSIC FM MAGAZINE: