As a lifelong admirer of Geminiani, Marcello , and Rameau , Avison tended to underplay the greatness of Handel , and was briskly dismissive in 1760 of recent musical imports: ‘Sorry am I to instance the innumerable foreign Overtures, now pouring in upon us every Season, which are all involved in the same Confusion of stile.’ Avison CDs are not yet outnumbering those of Handel on my shelves, but my respect for the works of this Newcastle composer increases by leaps and bounds. His writing for the harpsichord is both brilliant and sensitive, as readily recognised by Gary Cooper.
Avison details his views on harpsichord touch in an introduction to the Op 5 sonatas . To tackle such a subject at all showed considerable originality at the time. He distinguishes carefully between a legato dependent on some ‘spirited touch of the finger’ and a staccato ‘marking of the notes by means of the wrist’. The former method, he declared, was more suitable for these particular works. All the concertos of Op 5 are in major keys, and the majority has more than two movements. The joyous Allegro in No 5 is entirely characteristic.
Throughout his life Avison kept Newcastle as his working base, even though at one time he had been offered the organistship of York Minster. And he was by no means without contacts in the wider world. Thomas Gray, for instance, author of the Elegy written in a Country Church-yard and himself a devoted musician with reasonable keyboard technique and pleasing voice , added his contribution to Avison’s chief theoretical work, An Essay on Musical Expression .
A main joy of the Op 7 sonatas is the profusion of works in the minor . The Second Sonata launches a powerful movement in the key of G minor that Mozart was soon enough to make his own. Almost as impressive is the opening Allegro of No 5 in A minor, though here the tension is lessened by the triple metre and vague suspicion of a background dance .
It matters not a jot to this firstrate ensemble that Dr Burney considered Avison’s attitudes hopelessly out of date.
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