Music And Vision

It is difficult to approach Newcastle across the Tyne without being enchanted by the soaring corona that dominates the cathedral It is difficult to approach Newcastle across the Tyne without being enchanted by the soaring corona that dominates the cathedral of St Nicholas. Not yet the seat of a bishop in Avison ‘s day, it was the town ‘s largest church , where as organist he spent much of his working life . He had studied in London under Geminiani, who was in turn a pupil of Corelli. Avison was familiar not only with Italian music; he took in his stride also the latest products of Rameau and C P E Bach , both of whom he judged superior to Handel .

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.

—Robert Anderson