Keyboard Sonatas Op. 2 & 4
The Avison Ensemble
Gary Cooper (harpsichord, spinet, square piano & organ), Pavlo Beznosiuk and Caroline Balding (violins), Richard Tunnicliffe (cello)
2 CDs on Divine Arts, dda 25115
• World premiere recording •
International Record Review
'The recording is excellent, as it needs to be, in order to do justice to the top-drawer musicianship on display from these fine players.'
Mark Tanner, September 2014
Following the release of its debut recording for Linn five years ago, the Avison Ensemble, so named after the great eighteenth-century English composer of keyboard concertos Charles Avison, has carved a privileged niche for itself. This is not measurable just in terms of the ensemble's impressive clutch of recordings for Divine Art and Naxos, featuring Avison's complete oeuvre, made up of sonatas and concerti grossi, but in its deliberate adoption of younger musicians, thus helping to ensure a promising future for performances in this milieu. The Avison's highly acclaimed recording of six cello concertos by John Garth (1721-1810), reviewed by Simon Heighes in December 2007, undoubtedly paved the way for this latest two-CD set, which features the dozen accompanied keyboard sonatas Garth composed between the years c.1768 and 1782.
In the booklet notes for this new set, recorded in St Martin's Church, Hampshire, in 2008, I greatly enjoyed reading Simon Fleming's potted history lesson on the city of Durham and its not inconsiderable relevance to the life and times of the composer. Fleming points out that, notwithstanding its immediacy and charisma, the highly approachable nature of Garth's keyboard writing, at least by comparison with, say, Avison's, rendered them within reach of those possessing only a relatively modest technique. Indeed, in part due to the Alberti-bass accompaniments regularly detected in Garth's sonatas, it is hardly difficult to notice a stylistic leaning in the direction of the aforementioned Italian composer; as likely as not, these works would have been heard within small-scale domestic situations rather than in the north-east's grander performing spaces. Keyboard sonatas were, in Garth's time, regarded as an ideal vehicle for composition utilizing small forces and, aside from the ubiquitous solo versions, countless sonatas for keyboards in combination with wind or string instruments sprang up willy-nilly. It was the latter form, writing broadly in the stylistic mould of Scarlatti and C. P. E. Bach, which seems to have particularly fired Garth's imagination, and the result is a highly refined, elegant mode of writing holding considerable appeal.
Both the Op. 2 and Op. 4 Keyboard Sonatas offer up possibilities for playing on different keyboards; indeed, there are opportunities to hear some accomplished digitalism from Gary Cooper on harpsichord, fortepiano and organ in both sets of sonatas, and this serves to underscore the innately flexible nature of the music. Cooper is joined by violinists Pavlo Beznosiuk and Caroline Balding, and cellist Robin Michael, superbly disciplined musicians whose presence is invariably sensed rather than heard. All of the sonatas are built from a two-movement blueprint, none of which strays beyond ten minutes in total, and there is invariably a dance-like, light-hearted finale to each, serving as the perfect foil to the more firmly structured opening movements.
From the Op. 2 set I especially warmed to the Presto movement in the F major Sonata No. 2, in which Cooper pulls off the seemingly impossible by combining wit, sparkle and yet a determined rhythmic attack in one fell swoop on the fortepiano. The Allegro moderato to the E flat Sonata, played on the organ, comes over delightfully at this crisp pace, and the support given by the ensemble here is especially rewarding. From the Op. 4 set, at the harpsichord, a memorably sprightly account of the E flat major Sonata No. 5 is given, particularly in the Spiritoso, which for me ranks as among the most shapely and stylishly captivating playing on the recording. It is not just the adventurous speeds which contribute to the zesty effect in these performances but the intuitive and perfectly aligned nuances and points of emphasis with which the ensemble is able to operate so consistently. The Rondeau to the G minor Sonata, Op. 4 No. 6, on the organ, is as feisty and well crafted as one could imagine. The recording is excellent, as it needs to be, in order to do justice to the top-drawer musicianship on display from these fine players.
'In short, this is fine music with an excellent performance.'
Bertil van Boer,
The more entertaining stories of composers, particularly those whose are lesser known, seem to revolve around the usual stereotypes, with the best being related to various mishaps (self-inflicted or serendipitous). One has to admit, however, that the majority were workaday musicians who left hardly a ripple in history but who wrote copious amounts of music that are competent, interesting, and, alas, neglected. Most country have legions of these, but my attention is often drawn to England, where in terms of reputation, the last “great” early composer was Henry Purcell, who died young and left the field to foreigners, such as George Frédéric Handel, Johann Christian Bach, or Joseph Haydn. The truth, of course, is quite different, and I am quite pleased to see an uptick in the revival on disc of native British composers, many of whom were prolific and active in the various cities about the United Kingdom. One such concerns the composer John Garth (1721-1810), who spent the bulk of his professional life in Durham, where there was a large cathedral and a rather active arts scene. To be sure, cathedral organist James Heseltine (1711-1763) attempted to control all music in the city, even thwarting Garth’s friend and mentor, Charles Avison (1709-1770). By 1752, however, Garth and Avison began a series of public concerts, which the city fathers found superior to Heseltine’s offerings, and the rivalry began to vanish. By the time of Heseltine’s successor, Thomas Ebdon (1738-1811), it was gone altogether. Garth also composed services for the cathedral for the remainder of his life. The only interesting feature of his life is that Garth waited until 1794 to marry, which is odd considering that he and his new wife had been an item for almost a decade and both were well-to-do.
Garth’s music has been recorded before, and by this same ensemble; these are a set of six violoncello concertos (Op. 1) on the same label in 2008. Michael Carter noted in his review (32:6) that these represent transitional stages from the Baroque to the Classical periods, with structural and harmonic features of both stylistic eras. These two sets of sonatas, published in 1768 and 1772 respectively, are firmly planted into the Classical era, indicating that the composer was well aware of the latest style trends and not content to follow any conservative patterns at all. Both sets conform to a two-movement structure following French fashion of the time, generally a sonata form followed by some sort of rondo or dance. These were well-established in England through the efforts of J. C. Bach or Karl Friedrich Abel, and even Avison’s late works (the booklet notes stretching things a bit to include others, such as C. P. E. Bach or Domenico Scarlatti into this mix of models). What is most evident in the Op. 2 sonatas is that the opening movements are almost all characterized by a driving ostinato rhythm that seems particularly Mannheimish. The opening of the A major sonata (Op. 2 No. 5), for instance, has a well-defined theme with a rushing accompaniment that devolves briefly into suspensions and some quite virtuoso playing for the keyboard. What is striking is that the violins and keyboard (even with a continuo cellist) are all fairly evenly matched, so that no one instrument predominates. The C minor sonata (Op. 2 No. 3) has a folk-like main theme, almost as if Garth were evoking a more bucolic spirit despite the minor key. As for the second movements, I was quite surprised to hear a foreshadowing of the French Revolutionary song Ça ira in the E major sonata (Op. 2 No. 4), not to mention a rather nice Mannheim crescendo in the final Presto of the E major sonata (Op. 2 No. 6). It is no wonder that this set was the 18th century equivalent of a bestseller. As for the Op. 4, Garth follows pretty much the same format; pleasant tunes, sequencing of thematic sections, energetic bass line (with active keyboard accompaniment), and solid formal structures that evoke J.C. Bach. The exceptions to this are the two minor key sonatas, No. 2 in E minor and No. 6 in G minor. The first movement of the former is filled with tension and a virtuoso keyboard part that seems to require both skill and emotional intensity to bring off. This contrasts with the rather delicate and ghostly minuet that practically minces off the disc. The latter is filled with a thicker texture, which would not be out of place in some sort of orchestration (the use of organ here enhances this textural feature). Here too there is considerable emotional intensity which is diffused in the final section of the exposition with some superficial triplet figures as if to say that one ought not to take the power too seriously. The final rondeau has a theme that seems almost a bit Chopinesque (if, that is, Chopin had lived in the 18th century), and again Garth diffuses this emotional melody with suspensions and a nicely soft coda. But by the end the serious mood increases and when the final theme returns it sounds strangely melancholic.
The Avison Ensemble performs these two sonata sets with considerable attention to Garth’s clear phrasing. Their tempos are flexible enough to allow his tunes to stand out, and they have an outstanding sense of ensemble. The music itself ranges from the merely pleasant (which is what such sets were meant to provide to both performers and audience) to some quite gripping moments, such as in the minor key sonatas of the Op. 4. Since the keyboard parts, often quite technically demanding even in the accompaniment patterns, are generic, the ensemble has chosen to perform the bulk on the harpsichord (which was probably the main instrument of choice for the country at the time), but in several cases, most notably the texturally rich F major sonata (Op. 2 No. 2), the aforementioned E major sonata (No. 6 of the same set), and the E minor sonata (Op. 4 No. 2), keyboardist Gary Cooper has chosen a fortepiano to exploit Garth’s wider range of expression and dynamics, and in the texturally-rich work (Op. 2 No. 4 and Op. 4 No. 6), the organ is used. I find these choices to be entirely warranted by the music itself, though of course the performance practice of the time would have allowed for any keyboard at hand. In short, this is fine music with an excellent performance and demonstrates that we may well be missing out on a wonderful facet of the music of this period from England outside of London if this is any example.
'There is never a dull moment here ... a highly entertaining set of discs.'
Johan van Veen, July 2014
The Avison Ensemble is a pioneer in the exploration of repertoire written in north-east England, the region around Newcastle-upon-Tyne where Charles Avison worked most of his life. The largest part of his oeuvre has been recorded, and with this disc of music by John Garth the ensemble turns its attention to a friend and probable pupil of Avison. He was born in Durham and after finishing his musical education worked as organist at St Edmund's Church in Sedgefield. He also became organist to the Bishop of Durham at his official residence, Auckland Castle. As an organist Garth was highly esteemed: he travelled far to give recitals and was asked to inaugurate newly-built instruments.
In Durham he set up a concert series. His first attempt in 1742 was met with little enthusiasm from the cathedral's organist whose choir was the dominant force in concert life. In 1752 he organised a subscription series, with the assistance of Avison, in direct competition to the series of the cathedral choir. The animosity gradually dissipated and in time the two series integrated. The fact that the cathedral had a new organist in the person of Thomas Ebdon probably facilitated this process. Together they promoted the concert series until 1772 when Garth gave up his activities in this field. However, it is possible that he continued to play at concerts in Durham.
He may have performed some of the sonatas recorded here. The accompanied keyboard sonata was quite popular at the time, not only in England but also on the continent, for instance in France. The two series of six sonatas which are the subject of this set, were printed in 1768 and c.1772 respectively. The fact that the op. 2 set had 261 subscribers for 323 copies shows the reputation of Garth as a composer. Among the subscribers were famous names such as Charles Burney, James Nares and John Stanley. The sonatas are all in two movements: an allegro, followed by a piece in the form of a rondeau or a menuet. This is music for domestic entertainment, playable by amateurs. The strings play a subordinate role and only support the keyboard.
Several sonatas include crescendo markings. This "gives an indication that several of them were conceived for either a pianoforte, or for one of the new developments in harpsichord-making that made subtle changes in dynamics possible", according to Simon D.I. Fleming in the liner-notes. The latter seems more plausible than the former. Although the new pianoforte was known in England before 1750 it was only in the 1770s that it started to establish itself as an alternative to the harpsichord, especially in the London concert scene. That is not to say that it was also a common instrument elsewhere, and I especially wonder whether amateurs played such instruments at the time Garth published his sonatas.
Some of the sonatas here are played at the organ. This could be inspired by the possibility that Garth - or other organists - may have played sonatas from these sets in public concerts. There is also a possibility that some aristocrats owned a small organ. The use of an organ is probably more plausible than a pianoforte. It is a shame that the instruments which Gary Cooper plays are not specified in the booklet.
Musical entertainment for amateurs - that could suggest that this is music which is hardly memorable and goes in one ear and out the other. My experience is different. It was not hard at all to listen to these sonatas at a stretch. This is delightful music, very well written and with plenty of good themes. There is never a dull moment here, and that is also due to the interpreters. Gary Cooper, Pavlo Beznosiuk, Caroline Balding and Richard Tunnicliffe deliver energetic and differentiated performances. This has resulted in a highly entertaining set of discs, and it is a bit of a mystery to me why these have been on the shelf for six years.
'... superb British early music outfit The Avison Ensemble ... renowned for a refined gutsiness that is quite unique.'
I'm not entirely convinced of the musical worth of the 18th century Durham composer and organist John Garth's charming, insubstantial accompanied keyboard sonatas. But if any band was capable of convincing me, it would be superb British early music outfit The Avison Ensemble, whose recordings not only of their namesake's music but that of Vivaldi, Handel and Corelli are renowned for a refined gutsiness that is quite unique. Their recording of Avison's Concerto Grossi after Domenico Scarlatti is especially fine.
Garth (c.1721-1810) was good friends with Avison, who was also an exponent of the accompanied keyboard sonata, which as the Grove Dictionary reliably has it was “used almost exclusively by composers in north-east England (Avison, Ebdon and Hawdon as well as Garth) where a trio sonata ensemble of two violins, cello and harpsichord is required, with the strings either doubling the harpsichord, providing harmonic support or resting.”
The Avisons have already explored Garth's tuneful, original Opus 1 Cello Concertos - Garth played cello in Avison's Newcastle concert series - with the present cellist Richard Tunnicliffe as soloist. Here Pavlo Beznosiuk, violinist Caroline Balding and Tunnicliffe accompany keyboardist Gary Cooper for Garth's first two sets of keyboard sonatas (he wrote five in total).
Cooper uses three different types of instruments; some of the sonatas feature dynamic markings in the score and may have been intended to be played on the fortepiano. The change in timbre from harpsichord to fortepiano to organ is both effective and welcome, while the string playing is as finely differentiated and engaging as Cooper's sparkling keyboard work.
Sometimes, however – and this is obvious right away in the opening Allegro of the Opus 2 set – the string sound is too forward, resulting in a lack of clarity. Given the string parts are for the most part mere doublings of the keyboard part, which can happily stand alone if need be, this is not such a good thing.
That aside, there is still much to enjoy here. The dramatic Allegro of the C Minor Sonata, again from the Opus 2 set, is striking in its contained passion and finds its cousin in the final G Minor Sonata of the later set, here forcefully realised with organ. The E Flat Major Allegro of the sonata preceding it – Cooper opts for harpsichord this time – is one of the best and most substantial, with rare fugal writing and a more complex texture overall.
Audiophile Sound, Italy
' ... one of the most interesting of British ensembles playing baroque music.'
The name of the English composer and cellist John Garth, born in 1721 and who died in 1810, is virtually unknown in Italy, as is that (except to specialists) of his fellow countryman and colleague Charles Avison. This double CD, featuring Garth’s Sonatas with accompaniment, Op. 2 and op. 4, now allows those who love the late baroque to appreciate his composition. Each collection consists of six sonatas of two movements each (lacking a formal slow movement) for two violins and cello, accompanied by either harpsichord, piano or organ. These are pleasant works, easy to grip (the minuet movements are especially intriguing) which highlight a composer fascinated, as was Avison, by contemporary Italian instrumental style. The interpretation by the Avison Ensemble (one of the most interesting of British ensembles playing baroque music) and harpsichordist Gary Cooper makes the most of these works and highlights Garth’s skillful and versatile compositional technique.