Notes and Editorial Reviews
The influx of European composers to England in the 18th century led to a particularly active musical life, especially in London, but the influence of composers like Hellendaal, Castrucci, and especially Handel, led to the development of a musical culture whose native participants included the likes of William Boyce, Thomas Arne, John Stanley, and Charles Avison. These and many others were eager to take up the gauntlet tossed down by the Continentals, and they did so, but with the anticipated varying results. While the names of Boyce, Arne, and Stanley are rather well known among aficionados of 18th-century music in the sceptered isle, the same is not quite true for Charles Avison (1709–1770).
Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne,
Avison spent most of his life in his native city, but for 11 years he resided in London, where he came under the influence of Corelli’s student and champion, Francesco Geminiani. Geminiani exerted a strong influence upon the young Avison and when the latter returned to Newcastle, he organized a series of 14 subscription concerts two weeks apart during the winter months. In addition to composing, Avison was a musical mover and shaker on his home turf, writing musical criticism. His treatise, An Essay on Musical Expression (which proclaimed Geminiani to be a greater composer than Handel), appeared in 1752. Avison was responsible for the introduction of Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin to England, and he cobbled together a number of Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas into a set of string concertos.
Beyond the transcriptions of Rameau and Scarlatti, Avison’s authentic output is relatively small and consists of concerti grossi, keyboard concertos, and chamber music. John Johnson published the dozen concertos in this collection in London in 1758, at a time when Avison’s reputation was at its zenith. The composer’s debt to the Italian tradition in general and to Geminiani in particular is apparent, but rather than being a mere epigone, Avison strikes out on his own in a number of ways. While the majority of these concertos follow the structural pattern of the Italian concerto da chiesa, the first work in the set opens with a movement reminiscent of the tripartite French ouverture; the ninth and twelfth concertos follow the concerto da camera model with its fast-slow-fast sequence. Avison also expands the concertino, adding a viola to the normal complement of two violins and violoncello. There are also moments when—via the melodies—one is transported to the English countryside and the mind’s eye can almost envision a rustic gathering with the village folk clapping in unison while a fiddler merrily plies his craft and a band of revelers circles the brightly-colored maypole. The writing saves the truly difficult parts for the concertino, but the ripieno is given plenty to do by way of passages that are quite satisfying for musicians whose skills do not approach the virtuoso level. Led by Ukranian-born Pavlo Beznosiuk, a fixture in the early-music life in England and on the Continent, who has performed with Christopher Hogwood’s Academy of Ancient Music, Ton Koopman’s Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, and others. The Avison Ensemble was established for the sole purpose of acquainting the musical public with the work of a composer hailed by The New Grove as being “the most important English concerto composer of the 18th century.” They have furthered the revival of the Newcastle subscription concerts that Avison established over 250 years ago.
This is uncomplicated music, calculated to entertain, not to stimulate one’s intellect. The lack of profundity here is outweighed by the ability of Avison to craft interesting music that can be taken up and be happily tossed about by members of the ensemble; the band knows how to do this and do it well. Beznosiuk and his exceptionally gifted ensemble of young colleagues further enhance Avison’s gifts by serving up performances that sizzle with energy and spring in their step. Melodic lines are well shaped and the overall presentation is texturally lean and tightly focused. Though this is far from great music, these readings are enthusiastic and polished enough to satisfy any lover of the Baroque in general or the English Baroque in particular.
Michael Carter, FANFARE
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