Notes and Editorial Reviews
This two-CD set - now offered for the price of one - was originally issued by Hyperion on CDA 66891/2 in the mid-1990s; it’s good to have the collection available like this and it can be thoroughly recommended.
The Concerto Grosso was originally developed in the 1670s and 1680s by Corelli and Stradella in Rome as a way to exploit spaces for polychoral effect. It had become a particularly English form by the 1740s, when these sprightly and varied pieces by Avison were written. Indeed it was actually more popular outside Italy, where it had first been transformed into a concertino form with two violins, cello and continuo for more secular performances. It was then abandoned altogether in favour of the more virtuosic
The original centre of gravity for the Grand Concertos, as they came to be called, was London; here Handel’s Opp. 3 and 6 and the influential Geminiani sets, Opp. 2 and 3, fuelled a demand that even provincial composers found hard to meet. It was on this tide that these works by Avison rode.
Living in Newcastle for almost all his life, Avison visited London during the 1730s and will have heard much such music. For provincial musicians including Avison the Concerto Grosso provided appealing material for local music-making. Professionals were usually hired to manage the more demanding parts that were out of the reach of regular local orchestral players. Organist of St John’s church from 1735 and of St Nicholas - now the cathedral in Newcastle - the following year, Avison was soon asked to direct a series of subscription concerts of his own. These were also extended to venues in Durham. It was for these series that much of Avison’s orchestral music was written.
Having put out feelers for likely uptake a year before with an earlier version of the sixth concerto, Avison gathered over 150 subscribers for the set we hear on these CDs. He published them himself in 1744. It was Thomas Roseingrave’s edition of 42 Scarlatti sonatas in 1739 that created a real appetite for Italian sonatas in general. And for Scarlatti’s harpsichord music in particular. Interest in them soon assumed the proportions of a cult … ‘The Lessons of M. Scarlatti were in style so new and brilliant, that no great or promising player acquired notice of the public so effectually by the performance of any other music’ wrote Burney. A character in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is even likened to ‘the sixth of Avison’s Scarlatti’!
Of the fifty movements that comprise these dozen Concerti Grossi, only twelve have not been traced to works by Scarlatti; they may have been composed by Avison himself. This is entirely consistent with one of Avison’s purposes in writing this music – to render accessible to his public what he considered extremely difficult music to play: Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas, that is. This even though said sonatas were originally composed for Scarlatti’s young pupil, Maria Barbara, the daughter of Portuguese King João V, to whom Scarlatti was appointed music master in 1720. In fact, the difficulties that Avison perceived were rather ones of what we might call obscurantism or over-embellishment, than technical. What’s more Avison had to go beyond the Roseingrave publication for a significant number of slow movements.
The Brandenburg Consort play period instruments here and play them with delight and style, although there are some ‘mixed’ moments … the opening movement of the tenth concerto is anything but ‘grazioso’ being rather sluggish in tempo, for example. The musicians under the compelling direction of Goodman have, in compensation for other somewhat drooping tempi, the great virtue of bringing out the music’s immense variety. That quality, ever present in Scarlatti’s ‘originals’, is evident here and carries the listener along. Not that these are arrangements or realizations of Scarlatti – although you will not fail to recognize some strikingly familiar motifs – the first movement of the eleventh Concerto Grosso for example.
The change in the sonatas’ character with full instrumental colour is instructive, not curious. These works are lively, melodious and richly-painted canvasses in their own right in which Avison has accentuated his own creativity and palette of sounds. Quite rightly, that is the starting point for the Brandenburg Consort – to promote colour, lively rhythmic structure and the fresh essence of the concerti, all but the last of which are in four movements, slow-fast-slow-fast.
The accompanying booklet is clear and informative and the recorded acoustic good, although be prepared for longer than usual gaps between tracks. There is no other extant recording of this repertoire – indeed Avison is woefully under-represented on CD in general – so you can buy with confidence.
-- Mark Sealey, MusicWeb International
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