The Concerto grosso has a long and respectable reputation as a musical genre and Simon D. I. Fleming’s booklet note very properly describes the nature of the music, pointing out the durability of this type of composition. I found his reminder that Concerti grossi were still being published as late as the nineteenth-century to be somewhat intriguing.
I suppose the first name to spring to mind when the term Concerto grosso is used would be Handel, but although Charles Avison (1709-1770) was barely a generation younger, there is little resemblance to the style of the great Anglo-German master – indeed even the earliest of the works in this set (the first half dozen of Opus 9) were not composed until six or seven years after Handel’s death.
At this time music was changing, Haydn was writing his early symphonies and music was flourishing in European courts. At Mannheim for example the so-called ‘classical’ style flourished relatively early but, by contrast, Avison is sometimes said (both in Fleming’s notes and by other commentators) to have been influenced by Corelli – born half a century earlier. On first hearing these works I caught elements of Geminiani – a pupil of Corelli – and it has been surmised that Avison could also have been Geminiani’s pupil.
None of this seems to have lead to any great advancement of style; it seems that the Baroque format sufficed for Avison. True the melodies are less Baroque than those of Handel but they do not seem to advance much further than those of, say, Avison’s exact contemporary John Stanley (who was born in 1712). Another reason could be that Avison lived and died in Newcastle and perhaps because of the increasing importance of that (then) town he felt no great need to involve himself in the lively musical life of London where new musical styles were beginning to evolve.
Within the generous ration of concerti provided in these two sets of opus numbers it is difficult to detect any great difference in style between the earlier and the later compositions. Basically the normal slow-fast-slow-fast pattern of the Concerto grosso is held-to although there are three exceptions: the F major work from Opus 9 has a central Fugue and a final Aria; the Fourth of the Opus 10 set has five movements – the final rapid ‘Gavot’ sounding rather like a classical Allegro of a later period – in fact this movement is unlike any other in the whole set; and the following work has just three movements.
In terms of performance, the Avison Ensemble is superbly unified. Not surprisingly, several other of its recordings are mentioned in Divine Art’s very well presented annotation. Pavlo Beznosiuk leads with confidence – he is not afraid to add occasional decorations but these are not intrusive and never interrupt the melodic line. In all, these are exceptionally stylish ‘period’ performances by musicians in-tune with Avison’s philosophy and are ideal ambassadors for the promotion of this neglected composer. Divine Art must be commended for promoting rarely heard 18th-century composers, an admirable activity but it can involve commercial risk.
The nature of the recording influences the impression given by the music itself. The acoustic of the venue is very suitable, the string quality has attractive warmth and there is no undue highlighting of the leader. The eleven players sound full-bodied but after a while I became concerned about the narrow dynamic range, which seems to stay entirely between mezzo piano and mezzo forte ; add to this the harpsichord being buried deeply within the texture and an element of sameness begins to develop. Harpsichord continuo should enrich bass harmonies but because the tone of this instrument is lacking in treble, apart from a very occasional improvisatory link, the ear picks up no more than a slight colouring of the main notes of the bass line.
I realise that nowadays engineers tend to play down the presence of the harpsichord (I look back nostalgically to the sparkling quality achieved by the Nonesuch engineers in the 1960s) and perhaps I am being ungrateful in view of the comfortable and beautiful recorded quality provided here, but I fear that in the context of Avison’s attractive but perhaps modest talent, it puts the works in danger of seeming too similar to one another.