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ClassicsOnline Home » AVISON: 12 Concertos, Op. 6
By Elizabeth Roche
The Daily Telegraph (Australia)
"The arrival of this splendid issue should surely win Avison the host of new friends he certainly deserves. The scores are also unusually well supplied with very precise phrasing and dynamic markings, of which the Avison Ensemble take full advantage in spirited, crisply articulated and expressive performances."
Italy has always been a source of musical inspiration and innovation for composers
living north of the Alps. François Couperin, for example, once wrote
that he loved Corelli's music above all others, Bach greatly admired Vivaldi,
and Handel thoroughly assimilated the Italian style in his operas and oratorios.
Charles Avison, Handel's English colleague, embraced the Italian concerto
grosso and became the most prolific concerto composer of his time.
Baptized in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on 16th February 1709, Avison was the son of
a Newcastle Wait (town musician). He received his early training from his father
in this city close to the Scottish border, but moved to London around 1724 to
further his musical education and career. It was in London that he met and studied
with Francesco Geminiani, a student of Corelli who, like many composers of the
period, had moved to England to seek greater fame and fortune. Avison returned
to Newcastle in 1735 to assume the post of organist at St John's Church; and
he brought back all that he had learned about the Italian style. A year later
he became organist at the city's most important church, St Nicholas, and also
instituted a series of fourteen subscription concerts performed every two weeks
during the winter months. The series eventually became the Newcastle Musical
Society, with Avison serving as its Director (and organist of St Nicholas) for
his entire life.
Avison was also a provocative writer and critic. The proposal in his 1752 treatise
An Essay on Musical Expression that "expression" was more important
than following the formal rules of composition, and his extravagant claim that
Geminiani was a better composer than Handel, elicited howls of protest and inspired
some heated literary exchanges. Avison remained undaunted, and his tireless
activities as composer, teacher, conductor and businessman-entrepreneur established
him as the leading musical figure of Northern England. He died in comfortable
circumstances in Newcastle on 9th or 10th May 1770.
Avison composed music in a variety of genres, including orchestral concerti
grossi, chamber music and keyboard concerti. His three sets of Six Sonatas,
Opp. 5, 7 and 8, for harpsichord with the accompaniment of two violins and cello,
were patterned after Rameau's groundbreaking Pièces de clavecin en
concert (1741) that had established the new genre of the accompanied keyboard
sonata. Avison was the first to introduce Rameau's Pièces to England,
and his harpsichord parts are even more virtuosic than the latter's.
Not surprisingly, the majority of Avison's composition are in the ltalian concerto
grosso style, in which a string orchestra, violins, viola, cello and bass
with harpsichord continuo, is divided into two groups, the concertino
(solo) and ripieno (the other members of the orchestra). This arrangement
allows for dramatic contrast between the two sections, while providing the solo
violinist with ample opportunities to display the virtuoso string-playing so
favoured by Geminiani, Corelli, Veracini and their contemporaries. Avison's
concerti grossi also made it possible for amateur musicians to play in
the less demanding ripieno sections. One of the gentlemen members of
his Newcastle orchestra was the astronomer William Herschel, the discoverer
of the planet Uranus.
Of Avison's more than forty concertos, the best known are his attractive transcriptions
of keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1744 ). The twelve concertos of Opus
6 were published in 1758, when Avison was at the height of his creative
powers, and they represent a major breakthrough in the composer's style. In
Opus 6 Avison pays great attention to harmonic sonorities and "expression".
Chords are carefully voiced with a wider spacing between the notes, and there
are many more markings for dynamics, articulations, phrasing and tempo than
one finds in the earlier concerti. The opening Andante of Concerto II,
for example, features both long, slurred melodic lines and passages written
with short staccato markings. Its second movement, Allegro favours contrasts
between piano and forte dynamics. The same variety of articulations
can be found in the first Adagio of Concerto III, and the Andante
of Concerto IV. The Allegro assai of Concerto IV and the Allegro
assai of Concerto V are finely-wrought movements in the extended fugal style
of the Italian concerto grosso. In the first movement Andante of Concerto
VI, a lyrical melody played by the solo violin accompanied by a walking bass
in the cello reminds one of the sonatas of Geminiani, Avison's teacher.
Opus 6 is also a breakthrough in terms of formal structure. Haydn and
J.C. Bach had begun writing their first symphonies, and composers were gradually
abandoning the concerto grosso in favour of the regular phrase structure,
simplified textures and Sonata-Allegro form (A-B-A) that characterized the early
Classical symphony. Avison was keenly aware of this stylistic shift, as can
be heard in the last four concertos (IX-XII). Rather than the binary forms and
through-composed techniques of his earlier works, we see the beginnings of the
fuIl-blown sonata form (e.g. in the final Allegro of Concerto X and the
Con Spirito of Concerto XI) that would find its ultimate expression in
the symphonies of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.
Mark Kroll has performed throughout the world as a harpsichordist and fortepianist
for more than three decades, and he has also published on a wide variety of
subjects. He is currently completing a book on expressive harpsichord playing
and a biography of J. N. Hummel.
The Avison Ensemble
Despite having written over eighty string concertos and being hailed by the
New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians as "the most important
English concerto composer of the 18th century", Charles Avison's music
is still rarely performed on either modern or period instruments. There have
been many recordings of Avison's famous arrangements of Scarlatti's keyboard
sonatas, however, it is astonishing that this CD of Twelve Concertos opus
6 represents the first ever recording of a complete opus by Charles Avison.
Several years ago, a colleague and I discovered a collection of eighteenth
century music hidden away at the back of a cupboard. This turned out to be a
number of concertos of the hitherto little known Newcastle born composer Charles
Avison. Excited by the originality and freshness of the music, The Avison Ensemble
was formed with the aim of enhancing public awareness of Charles Avison and
the many other neglected British composers of the baroque period - composers
thoroughly overshadowed by the brilliant career of George Frederick Handel,
who was living and working in London at the time.
Comprising some of Europe's leading baroque musicians, The Avison Ensemble
is furthering the revival of the once famous Newcastle Subscription Concerts
originally established and promoted by Charles Avison himself. We have chosen
to perform on period instruments in order to recreate as close as possible the
distinctive 'sound world' that Charles Avison would have known. Whilst other
works from the baroque and early classical periods are played, The Avison Ensemble
is unique in having its own composer along with a substantial repertoire of
his music as yet unperformed in modern times. Miraculously, we have added to
this repertoire with the recent acquisition of two of Avison's original workbooks!
In 2001, with the assistance of The Heritage Lottery Fund, and members
of The Charles Avison Society, we purchased, at Sotheby's auction rooms
in London, the first ever Avison workbook to surface. Incredibly, less than
a year later, a second book was discovered and acquired by The Avison Ensemble.
Both manuscripts contain many unpublished works by the composer and several
of his contemporaries - an exciting find for the musical world.
Today, The Avison Ensemble introduces new audiences to Charles Avison's music
through an intensive touring, publishing and recording schedule; a thriving
education outreach programme; subscription concerts and radio broadcasts. For
more information, or to join The Charles Avison Society, please contact us or
visit our web site. We hope you enjoy our performance and Charles Avison's music
on this Naxos CD!
The Avison Ensemble.
The Ukrainian/Irish violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk has been described as an artist
with star quality, a rare performer who is equally at home on instruments as
diverse as modem, Classical, Baroque and Renaissance violins, viola and medieval
fiddles, and has been praised for his versatility and virtuosity. Well-known
as a soloist, chamber musician and concertmaster, he has led and directed numerous
period instrument orchestras including the Avison Ensemble, Academy of Ancient
Music, Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the
Hanover Band, L'Arte dei Suonatori and Le Parlement de Musique. His recordings
include works by Biber, Westhoff and Walther, and the Brandenburg Concertos
with the New London Consort, Vivaldi's Opus 6 violin concertos with the Academy
of Ancient Music, and the Schubert Octet and Cherubini quartets with
the ensemble Hausmusik. These and his innumerable recordings for the BBC and
European radio and television stations have established him in his pre-eminent
position in the field of early music. He teaches Baroque violin at the Royal
Conservatory in The Hague.
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AVISON: 12 Concertos, Op. 6