The 12 sonatas on this disc are something of a hybrid between the Trio Sonata and the accompanied Keyboard Sonata. In his excellent notes, Simon Fleming suggests that the model for this type of sonata comes from Rameau, but he adds ‘Avison created a new species of sonata that was largely peculiar to the North East’. More than that, we are told that this type of sonata was a ‘popular genre in the north east’. I wonder if those who inhabit the north east of England today are aware that, in the eighteenth century, their forebears, were fans of such elevated music; and I can’t help wondering what might have now supplanted the harpsichord sonata in the life of present-day Tynesiders.
Enough of idle speculation. The booklet also tells us Charles Avison was a ‘little known Newcastle born composer’; something which came as a surprise to me since my childhood seemed to be surrounded by Avison’s music. My father, himself having spent some of his formative years in the north east, possessed several copies of pieces by Avison, which he played with great enthusiasm; it was one of these that he gave me to learn at my first organ lesson with him. Yet when I inspect the record catalogues I realize that, indeed, Charles Avison (1709-70)has rather passed under the radar, overshadowed as much by his southe4rn contemporaries to whom he himself acknowledged a debt of gratitude: Geminiani ( with whom he studied in London during his brief period away from Newcastle), Domenico Scarlatti and J. C. Bach. That he has now attracted the devotion of such an outstanding specialist period-instrument ensemble, to the extent that it has taken his name and dedicated itself to the promotion of his music, shows that not only was my father’s enthusiasm not ill-founded but that England has done its own musical heritage no favours with its London-centric attitudes.
If people still doubt that the north east could breed a composer to rival the best in London and beyond then they only need to listen to these remarkable disc; remarkable as much for the glories of the music they contain as for the brilliance of the Avison Ensemble’s playing and, in particular, Gary Cooper’s delightful harpsichord virtuosity. He revels in the ad libitum passage interpolated into Op. 5 No. 3, while he chatters away with such ebullience in the quicker movements that the sense of these sonatas being, as Avison himself suggested, ‘a Conversation among friends, where the Few are of one mind, and propose their mutual sentiments, only to give Variety, and enliven the select Company” (Avison was clearly a man with a penchant for commas) is palpable.
It’s always tempting to identify influences to describe music which is probably unfamiliar to anyone who is reading this without first having bought the disc, but in truth there is very little here which reminds one of any other composer of the period or earlier. Perhaps, some imaginative soul might feel a bit of Pachelbel peeps over the ledge In Op. 5 No. 4 or a bit of J. S. Bach finds its way into the last movement of Op.5 No. 3, but elsewhere this is pure, unmolested music, wholly original in style, language and idiom, and it’s an idiom with which the Avison Ensemble clearly feels totally at ease. These are performances notable for their wit, elegance and refinement, unpretentious and uncluttered by artificial nuance or superimposed gesture. The recording made down south in a Cambridge church, is likewise a model of discretion and understatement. All in all, this is a very welcome and refreshing release which should help introduce Charles Avison to those who didn’t have my childhood benefits and have yet to realize that he was a composer of real distinction.
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