Audiophile Audition

The music of the 18th century English composer Charles Avison was heavily indebted to Archangelo Corelli, whose seminal Op. 6 concertos were phenomenally popular throughout Europe and were widely disseminated and easily accessible for performance as well as study. Corelli was the composer most responsible for the development of the concerto grosso form which assumed its popularity at the beginning of the 18th century. Notable composers adopting the form were Vivaldi, Handel and Bach, thus insuring its preeminence.

Avison modeled his concertos on those by Corelli, preferring the four-movement ‘sonata da chiesa’ or church sonata paradigm. This type of sonata, as distinct from the ‘sonata da camera ‘ or chamber sonata, generally consists of four movements. They often use more than a single melody and the movements are ordered slow-fast-slow-fast with respect to their tempo. The second movement is usually a fugal allegro, and the third and fourth movements are binary forms that occasionally resemble the dances the sarabande and gigue. This gives this type of sonata some of the aspects of the Baroque suite.

Avison spent most of his career in Newcastle which became wealthy enough on the back of the coal industry to become a significant cultural center. By the time he composed these late concertos during the period 1766-1769 he had standardized his compositional style into a formulaic pattern. The new galant style was already far along in the process of conquering the European musical world but Avison rejected the current state of music, insisting on a return to the earlier concerto grosso. Despite this approach the concertos are utterly delightful for their serene beauty and melodic invention. They possess those Apollonian qualities that we think of when we contemplate the 18th century in England: the well-ordered artistic world of Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

It is interesting to consider that most of Avison’s work was little known until cellist Gordon Dixon discovered a collection of 18th century music hidden away at the back of a cupboard. Mr. Dixon formed The Avison Ensemble with the intention of popularizing the composer’s music as well as other neglected British composers of the era. The Avison Ensemble perform on period instruments and have added still more works to the English Baroque repertoire by recently acquiring two of Avison’s original workbooks which contain unpublished works by Avison and other 18th century composers. Led by early music specialist Pavlo Beznosiuk they play this music with the necessary phrasing, tempi and stylistic rightness that brings this music to life. There is not a hint of the museum quality that can afflict little-known music for which a strong performance tradition does not as yet exist when it suddenly sees the light of day. This music seems to breathe naturally and is utterly charming in all respects. It is hard to see how these concertos could be better played than they are here.

The sound quality is rich and reverberant, perfectly complementing the strings. The sound field is wide enough to suggest a mid-sized hall. The contrapuntal lines of the music are clearly distinguishable making it easy to appreciate Avison’s superb skill.

—Mike Birman