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CD: Crotchet

Charles AVISON (1709-1770)
12 Concerti Grossi (1744) after Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757)
CD 1

Concerto No.1 in A [12 :15]
Concerto No.2 in G [15 :19]
Concerto No.3 in d minor [10:17]
Concerto No.4 in a minor [16:08]
Concerto No.5 in d minor [10:36]
Concerto No.6 in D [13:26]
CD 2

Concerto No.7 in g minor [11:33]
Concerto No.8 in e minor [9:57]
Concerto No.9 in C [13:11]
Concerto No.10 in D [7:21]
Concerto No.11 in G [17:43]
Concerto No.12 in D [16:06]
The Avison Ensemble/Pavlo Beznosiuk
rec. Jubilee Theatre, St Nicholas’ Hospital, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, 26-30 November 2007. DDD.
DIVINE ART DDA21213 [78:14 + 76:38]
Experience Classicsonline

This excellent pair of CDs follows hard on the heels of Divine Art’s release of the Avison Ensemble’s recording of their eponymous composer’s Opp. 9 and 10 Concertos (DDA 21211), which I so recently recommended – see review. If anything, this is finer music than those concertos – hardly surprising when the originals were sonatas by none other than Domenico Scarlatti – and the performances and recording are equally fine.

The London publication in 1739 of 42 Scarlatti sonatas provided Avison’s inspiration in arranging movements from several of those as concerti grossi. His excuse, if one were needed, was the difficulty of performance of the music in its keyboard original state, but he couldn’t help also preening himself on having "tak[en] off the Mask which concealed their natural Beauty and Expression". I beg leave not to get into the thorny question of the adequacy or otherwise of the originals – performances of the calibre of those of Richard Lester on his complete Nimbus cycle would suggest that there was little amiss – but the music certainly sounds more varied and probably more amenable to most modern ears in its orchestral dress. More recently, Tommasini had the same idea in his arrangement as a ballet for Diaghilev of Scarlatti’s music in The Good-humoured Ladies.

Avison didn’t orchestrate whole concertos; some, like No.1 are from just two sonatas (Kk91a/d and Kk24), others from four different originals, like No.2, from KK 91c, 13, 4 and 2. The Divine Art booklet makes the provenance of each movement clear, also indicating with an asterisk movements transposed to a different key, with a dagger where the movement has been shortened or altered, and with two asterisks where the source is unknown.

Most of those unknowns, mainly slow movements, were probably Avison’s own compositions – sounding in no way out of place in the company of the Scarlatti-derived movements. Everything, original or not, is very skilfully arranged – preferable to the Sinfonie di Concerto Grosso of the elder Scarlatti, Alessandro, as least as performed, slightly heavily, by I Musici on Philips 400 017 2 – one of the first batch of CDs in 1983, but no longer available. (For all my reservations, this is worth reissuing, but there are alternatives on Tactus TCC661906 and 661907 and CPO 999 8562.)

Hitherto my benchmark recording has been that of the Academy of St Martin under Neville Marriner (Philips Duo 438 806-2, no longer available). It was, indeed, from the ASMF on a long-deleted Oiseau-Lyre LP that I first came across the music of Avison and his contemporary Boyce and discovered thereby that English music between Purcell and Elgar had not been quite the desert that it had been portrayed as.

This new recording is ample compensation for the deletion of the ASMF set. It doesn’t exactly wipe the floor with the earlier version, which is still worth considering if you find it as a remainder or second-hand at a reasonable price. Surprisingly, some of the tempi on the new set are slightly broader than on the Philips. No.1/iv, for example, takes 4:43 at Beznosiuk’s hands, 4:01 at Marriner’s. On CD2, No.7/iv now takes 4:17 against Marriner’s 3:33. I compared the two versions of these movements and found, as is often the case, that both make perfect sense in their own context. Perhaps I lean slightly to Marriner in 7/iv – he stresses the allegro part of the marking, Beznosiuk the affettuoso part – but I don’t want to make a big issue of it.

I shall still want to hear the ASMF versions – I couldn’t resist listening to the two CDs straight through for comparison – but the new versions are likely to make for more frequent listening. It’s a tribute to the music and to both performances that I could listen to four well-filled CDs in one session without becoming sated.

The ASMF version employs modern instruments, though with cognisance of period practice; the Avison Ensemble employ period instruments, as itemised in the booklet. There is a rival period-performance from the Brandenburg Consort and Roy Goodman on Hyperion Dyad CDD22060 (2 CDs for the price of one). I haven’t heard this version but it has been described in some quarters as likely to sound a little rough and ready to those not fully attuned to early instruments. Mark Sealey certainly didn’t in general share that opinion in his review of this set, and I find it a little surprising in view of the excellence of their performances of the Handel Op.3 concertos which I have recommended here on Musicweb.

You certainly won’t find anything of the sort about the playing of the Avison Ensemble on the new set – this is early music without the rough edges, by which I don’t mean to imply that it’s dull or over-polished: this isn’t the early-music equivalent of the Berlin Phil under Karajan. I’m still hard put to hear the continuo, though, as I was with the earlier Op.9/10 set – I don’t want to hear a monster harpsichord clattering away, but I’d like to hear a little more of it. Otherwise, the recorded sound is first-rate.

The Avison Ensemble have already recorded the music of their namesake for Naxos and Divine Art. Their 2-CD recording of the Concerti Grossi, Op. 6 on Naxos 8.557553-4 was welcomed by Jonathan Woolf and Johan van Veen as doing Avison proud – see JW’s review and JV’s review. Robert Hugill was equally appreciative of their later recording of Opp. 3 and 4 (8.557905-6 – see review). I hope to include an appreciation of the Naxos recording of the Op.6 works in my November, 2008, Download Roundup: this is Avison’s finest music with the possible exception of the Scarlatti-based concertos.

Having switched to the Divine Art label, the Ensemble recently recorded the newly-discovered set of Concertos after Geminiani’s Op.1, to the satisfaction of JV again, though he had some reservations about the recorded sound – (DDA21210, see review). All these recordings are very worthy of your consideration but the Naxos Op.6 and the new Divine Art sets are probably the best places to start. With the new set offered at two-for-one, it’s very little dearer than the Naxos, so why not get both?

The only black mark that I can place against this whole enterprise is the failure to provide Avison’s dates, which is all the more surprising when Divine Art include such a wealth of detail about the provenance of each movement.

Brian Wilson


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