The Avison Ensemble must be praised for its outstanding work in championing British baroque composers after Purcell, particularly those working in northern England in the mid to the latter part of the 18 th century. One of the ensemble’s latest CDs features the chamber works of Charles Avison (b. 1709), who lived and worked in Newcastle between 1735 and his death in 1770. The recording contains six sonatas for two violins and bass op. 1 and six sonatas for harpsichord op. 8, with accompaniment for two violins and a cello. The double CD forms an attractive diptych portraying Avison at both ends of his career, highlighting many fine, inventive compositions.
The Six Sonatas op. 1 was the first set of pieces which Avison published during, or shortly after, his period of study with Francesco Geminiani in London in the 1730s. It is not surprising, therefore, that these pieces are strongly influenced by this teacher, and from listening to them one would be forgiven for thinking that Handel might also have played a part in their development, except that Avison, throughout his career, maintained a poor opinion of the German composer. Avison wrote that Handel, although ‘Born with Genius capable of soaring the Heights, to suit the vitiated Taste of the Age … (he) lived in, descended to the lowest’, a statement that must have done the composer few favours in Handel-loving London, and which may have been one of the reasons which caused him to eventually decided to base himself in Newcastle.
The op. 1 trios follow the sonatas da chiesa of Corelli closely in mood and structure, and musically they show Avison’s first attempt at independence as a composer, departing from the style of his teachers. There are distinct signs of originality in the melodies, but his reliance on repetition (such as the use of a descending scale motif first heard in the fugal section of sonata no. 1) is typical of a composer who is till experimenting with, and needing to expand, his musical palette. The part-writing, however, is mature, and the violins and cello are skillfully blended so that no keyboard instrument is actually necessary (although the title page omits this fact).
In the sonatas op. 8 we encounter a different Avison: here we see a mature composer and virtuoso keyboard player displaying his prowess, and enjoying it. The harpsichord writing is brilliant, even dazzling at times, and displays an originality of style that is markedly different from the sonatas op. 1 Modelled on Rameau’s Pièces de Clavecin en Concert , the op.8 sonatas are prototypes of the later classical piano trios of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, in which the role of the string and keyboard is reversed, and attention is drawn more towards the keyboard than to the violins and cello. The spirit of these pieces is a heady combination of the fire and heat of Scarlatti, the grotesque and the bizarre of Rameau, and the charm and grace of the pre-classical salon. I would recommend starting with track 3 of CD no.2, the A minor sonata (not C major as printed in the CD booklet), before listening to anything else.
The CDs feature Pavlo Beznosiuk and Caroline Balding on violins, Richard Tunnicliffe on cello and Robert Howard on organ (op.1) and harpsichord (op.8). The strings create a superb, well-blended sound, and offer a wide range of tonal colours and variety, but Howarth deserves special credit for his continuo rendition in op.1, and his exceptionally fine harpsichord playing in op.8. There is much to appreciate – and learn – from his subtle articulation and phrasing, while his bold, decisive, no-nonsense approach on the harpsichord is a relief from a world where delicacy and finesse can sometimes overtake flair and good judgement.