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Charles AVISON (1709 - 1770): "Sonatas for Harpsichord Opus 5 & 7"

The Avison Ensemble

rec: April 18 - 22, 2008, Cambridge, St George's Church, Chesterfield
Divine Art - dda21215 (2 CDs) (© 2010) (1.52'10")

Sonata in G, op. 5,1; Sonata in C, op. 5,2; Sonata in B flat, op. 5,3; Sonata in E flat, op. 5,4; Sonata in G, op. 5,5; Sonata in A, op. 5,6 [1]
Sonata in G, op. 7,1; Sonata in g minor, op. 7,2; Sonata in B flat, op. 7,3; Sonata in d minor, op. 7,4; Sonata in a minor, op. 7,5; Sonata in A, op. 7,6 [2]

Sources: [1] Six Sonatas for the Harpsichord with accompaniments for two violins and violoncello, op. 5, 1756; [2] Six Sonatas for the Harpsichord with accompaniments for two violins and violoncello, op. 7, 1760

Gary Cooper, harpsichord; Pavlo Beznosiuk, Caroline Balding, violin; Robin Michael, cello

Writing about a composer and performing his music are two different things. The article on Charles Avison in New Grove says that he was "the most important English concerto composer of the 18th century and an original and influential writer on music". For many years this was not reflected in the number of recordings of his oeuvre. This has changed mainly thanks to the Avison Ensemble. Over the last six years they have recorded most of Avison's compositions. Whereas music-lovers are inclined to think about such a relatively obscure composer as a "minor master", these recordings reveal that his music is of a consistently high level.

Avison played a key role in the musical life of the North East of England, but through his writings and the dissemination of his music his reputation spread throughout England and beyond. Among posts which were offered to him were two jobs as organist in Dublin, and a position as teacher in Edinburgh. But he didn't take any of them: he remained in Newcastle upon Tyne where he was born and where he also died.

Avison was a prolific composer of concerti grossi, which reflect the influence of his hero, Francesco Geminiani. The fact that he rated Geminiani higher than Handel made him quite a controversial figure in England. But there is also another side of Avison as the set of discs shows. The opuses 5 and 7 both comprise six sonatas for harpsichord with additional parts for two violins and cello. These show the influence of Jean-Philippe Rameau, a composer Avison rated highly, and whose Pièces de clavecin en concert he performed at public concerts. Like Rameaus Pièces the sonatas from both collections can be performed by harpsichord alone. The violins and the cello reinforce the various lines of the keyboard part. In a way they show the framework of these sonatas, because the keyboard parts are highly decorated and contain many additional notes and arpeggios.

Although one may assume Avison performed some of these sonatas during public concerts they were written for amateurs to play. Considering the technical level of the keyboard parts one can only conclude that these amateurs were highly capable. Some movements could well be part of a keyboard concerto, for instance the opening presto of the Sonata in g minor, op. 7,2. These sonatas show that Avison was not a representative of the galant idiom, with its fluent keyboard parts which were technically not too demanding and were mainly written to please the ear.

From this perspective these sonatas could be considered old-fashioned, but several features are rather modern. Firstly, most sonatas are in major keys: in the whole of the opus 5 there are no sonatas in the minor at all. And there are not many deep thoughts or dark feelings in these two sets. One of the most expressive movements is the opening andante from the Sonata in d minor, op. 7,4. Secondly, although they are largely following the model of the sonata da chiesa Avison often reduces the number of movements to three or even two. Opus 7 has just one sonata in three movements, whereas all others are in two - which was a feature of the diverting music of the mid-18th century. And lastly, the very form of a sonata for keyboard with instrumental parts ad libitum was quite modern. Rameau was one of the first to write such pieces, and they became fashionable later in the 18th century. In Germany Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was one of the composers of such sonatas, and in France someone like Johann Schobert also wrote a number of pieces for this scoring.

These two sets of sonatas were written for the entertainment of amateurs, and still are able to appeal to music-lovers today. That is even more the case when they are played with so much fire and passion as by the members of the Avison Ensemble. Gary Cooper plays the keyboard parts brilliantly, with technical perfection and with artistic fervour. This way he emphasizes that Avison is not just a "minor master", but an excellent composer. His huge admiration for Gemiani may have given him a somewhat questionable reputation, he clearly was an original mind who wrote music on the basis of well-considered stylistic criteria. Pavlo Beznosiuk, Caroline Balding and Robin Michael give excellent support and lend additional colour to the keyboard parts.

The recordings of the Avison Ensemble always come with exemplary booklets which provide the listener with all the necessary information. The recording leaves nothing to be desired. In short, this set offers almost two hours of first-rate musical entertainment.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

The Avison Ensemble

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