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Stephen PAXTON (1734-1787)
Cello Sonatas: Op.1/1 in A [13:25]; Op.4/6 in D [13:57]; Op.1/4 in C [11:53]; Op.4/5 in C [15:54]
Cello Concerto in G [15:27]
Sebastian Comberti (cello); Ruth Alford (cello); Maggie Cole (harpsichord); The Pantheon Band
rec. St John’s Church, Loughton, Essex, UK, 16-18 June 2008. DDD
CELLO CLASSICS CC1021 [70:46]
Experience Classicsonline

The North East of England seems to have been a much more prolific breeding ground for music in the 18th century than has been generally realised. Divine Art have recently brought us some excellent recordings of music by the Newcastle-based Charles Avison (1709-1770) and the Durham-based cellist John Garth (1721-1810); now Cello Classics oblige with the music of another cellist from Durham, Stephen Paxton. Avison was neglected but not forgotten, with one or two of his works recorded by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, but the music of Garth and Paxton had sunk into entirely unwarranted neglect.

Founded in April 2001 by Sebastian Comberti, the soloist here, the Cello Classics label is ‘dedicated to releasing CDs of unexplored repertoire for the cello, played by some of the most exciting players of the past and the present, and introducing some of the cellists of the future’. It has already built up an impressive portfolio of recordings, mostly of neglected music, ranging from the baroque to the late 20th Century.

I’m grateful to them for having introduced me to the music of Paxton, a celebrated figure in his day, especially after his removal to London, though little known now. Like Garth, he has no entry in the Oxford Companion to Music, though he does feature in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, so I’m reliant on the information contained in the very helpful CD booklet, including the fact that he has frequently been confused with his younger brother, William. His lifetime fame failed to survive his death and the very location of his grave in St Pancras churchyard is now lost.

There is just one other recording of Paxton’s music in the current catalogue: Six Sonatas for bassoon and harp, Op.3 (Harp & Company 50513), and a very short excerpt from one of the Cello Sonatas was included on a Divine Art CD The Jane Austen Collection (2-4107 - see review), so the new CD is particularly welcome.

The Divine Art recording of the Garth concertos was revelatory (DDA25059, 2 CDs for the price of one - see review). Paxton’s music is not quite in that league, but it’s very attractive and it’s particularly interesting to hear what on paper look like Corellian sonatas, three in the da camera 3-movement form and one in the 4-movement da chiesa form, employed as vehicles for the then new galant style, more normally associated with the likes of J.C. Bach who was in London from 1762. Paxton must have moved there before 1756, when he was elected a member of the Royal Society of Musicians. Though the booklet is very informative, it gives no dates for these sonatas, so I can only guess at the influence of J.C. Bach.

The Concerto was published posthumously in 1789. In many respects, it’s the most attractive work here; if you’d told me that it was a recently-rediscovered work by J.C. Bach, or maybe even early Haydn, I certainly wouldn’t think it unworthy of either. It’s placed last on the CD, which is entirely appropriate; the sonatas, which are rather smaller beer, would have been overshadowed if they had followed it.

I don’t wish, however, to sound disparaging about the sonatas, all of which are well worth hearing. Two of them, like the concerto, have modern editions, but Opp. 4/5 and 6 are performed from a manuscript in the British Library.

Sebastian Comberti’s notes explain the editorial principles and the decisions regarding performing practice. With the exception of the very affective solo slow movement, largo e sostenuto, of Op.4/6 (track 5), the lower stave is realised by a combination of a second cello and harpsichord. Paxton’s own cadenzas have been employed where they exist; otherwise Sebastian Comberti has composed his own. That I wasn’t sure which was which is testimony to the stylish credibility of the modern ones. Indeed, everything about these performances seems sensibly based and well executed.

I have no benchmark for comparison, but all the performances are well judged and do the music justice. I’ve recently been praising Maggie Coles’s pianism in Mozart and late Schubert in my Download Roundups, so it’s gratifying to hear her as an accomplished, if necessarily sub-fusc, continuo player on the harpsichord.

She also features as harpsichordist in the Pantheon Band for the closing concerto. I hadn’t encountered them as a group before, though the names of some of the players are well enough known to guarantee a fine performance, which is exactly what they give.

With good recording - fairly close, but not too close - informative notes and an attractive booklet, this recording deserves the wide audience which I hope it receives. The rear cover of the booklet advertises four other Cello Classics recordings, featuring Comberti himself, Alexander Rudin, and Richard Tunnicliffe - full details from the Cello Classics website. I hope to follow up on some of these.

Brian Wilson 

 
 


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