This disc has been inducted into the Fanfare Classical Hall of Fame
While London was the hub of English musical life in the 18 th century, there were other cities in which musical societies sprang up and flourished. These included Newcastle upon Tyne, Bath, and Durham. Durham was a convenient way station for travelers and many would lodge in the inns there. One of these, The Red Lion, became a focal point for meetings as well as musical get-togethers. In fact, it would not be incorrect to say that it was Durham’s equivalent to Zimmermann’s Kaffehaus in Leipzig where Bach and his Collegium Musicum would convene for their evenings.

The heart of musical Durham was the Norman cathedral situated above the city. Many of the city’s resident musicians were members of the choir – lay clerks, as our friends on the other side of the pond call them – lured there from around the Scepter’d Isle by the high wages available. Together with the homegrown talent, they participated in the numerous concerts that were regularly presided over by the cathedral organist, and other programs as well.

John Garth (1721-1810) had ties to neither cathedral nor city, but he still exercised a strong influence on Durham’s musical life. Little is known of Garth’s musical training, but he may have numbered among the early students of Charles Avison, the well-known organist and composer from Newcastle. Garth’s first known musical appointment was to the post of organist at St. Edmund’s Church, Sedgefield. He was apparently an organist of significant talent and frequently offered organ recitals across northeast England. Garth was later appointed organist at Auckland Castle, traditionally the residence of the Bishop of Durham, holding the post until 1793. Garth’s name first appears in a Durham advertisement from 1746. As the years went by, he took responsibility for the management of the subscription concerts in several venues in and around the city.

Garth left behind an impressive body of music, including several sets of keyboard sonatas (opp.2, and 4-7) that follow the blueprint established by Avison: two violins, cello, and either harpsichord or chamber organ. The first set appeared in at least six editions, but the others never proved to be as popular. Garth’s cello concertos – though written for his own use – were dedicated to Edward, Duke of York, a cellist of considerable ability. The two men met in 1761 when Garth and Avison – along with William Herschel – were part of the ensemble hired to entertain the Duke during his stay with the Milbanke family. At the time, there was a surfeit of substantial cello music and until then nothing akin to Garth’s concertos had been published in Great Britain. The Newcastle Journal reported on a concert in June of 1753 where Garth played one of the concertos: “We hear from Durham that . . . several fine Pieces of Musick were performed, particularly a Violincello Concerto composed and executed by Mr. Garth, which was justly admired and applauded by all present.”

Garth was following the winds of change with these concertos. They walk away from the old school style of Corelli and Geminiani tenaciously clung to by many of England’s indigenous composers and move toward the more attractive and accessible idiom of the London-based J. C. Bach. All of the concertos follow the slow-fast-slow pattern of the Italian sonata da camera and follow Corelli’s plan of alternating solo and tutti sections. However, Garth was probably more influenced by the “Prussian” sonatas (1742) of C.P.E. Bach, since they make use of a form that Garth employs in both his themes and modulations.

Garth’s maturation is traceable from the first through the last of these concertos; the First is more heavily influenced by the Baroque while the Fifth Concerto is more up-to-date. This indicates that these concertos were probably composed over a long period of time. The outer movements tend to follow Avison’s thoughts on melody and harmony, while the middle movements – though shorter than their bookends – generally place the spotlight on the cellist, with gentle and occasional punctuation by the orchestra.

I first made the acquaintance of John Garth’s music in the days of vinyl, when the first of these concertos was included on a Hyperion release entitled “The Concerto in Europe.” Ever since, I had been hoping for either a complete set of his cello concertos or at least something else from Garth’s quill. It was a long time in coming, but the genie granted my wish by way of this double-disc slim pack from Divine Art. This is wonderful music, possessed of flair, style, and occasional significant breadth. The Sixth Concerto is the most expansive, having at its center a gorgeous Siciliana that would even make an Italian composer green with envy, and the unsettled mood of the opening movement of the Fifth Concerto is certainly among the best written in England at the time.

The performances are equally commendable. Richard Tunnicliffe is in complete control of his instrument (c. 1730), which is attributed to Leonhard Manisell of Nuremberg. Tunnicliffe’s tone is rich and deep across the range of his cello, never thinning or becoming anemic, and his technique is more than up to the demands required by Garth. The Avison Ensemble is small – no doubt to some degree in keeping with the forces available to Garth – but there is no lack of tonal strength here. They also play with generous helpings of solid musicianship, not to mention complete dedication. The tempos are comfortable, never rushed or lugubrious, and the sound is quite vivid, no doubt due to the acoustic properties of the venue, The Picture Gallery, Paxton House, Berwick upon Tweed.

This is a must-have for cellists, Anglophiles, and all who cherish music of the era; it is also the latest inductee into our Classical Hall of Fame.

—Michael Carter