About this Recording
8.557905-06 - AVISON: 6 Violin Concertos, Op. 3 / 8 Violin Concertos, Op. 4
English  German 

Charles Avison (1709/10-1770)
Concertos Op. 3 and Op. 4

The English city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne was not only a bustling hub of industry and commerce during the eighteenth century, but also a place for music. The heavy traffic of ships travelling up and down the river Tyne might just as easily be carrying a harpsichord as a shipment of coal or dry goods, because Newcastle was the home of Charles Avison, England’s greatest composer of orchestral concertos.

Avison was baptized in Newcastle on 16th February 1709 (or 1710, according to some scholars). He received his early training from his father and then set out for London at the tender age of fifteen to further his education and career. There he probably first met and studied with the great Italian violinist Francesco Geminiani, who had moved to England in 1714. Avison returned to Newcastle in 1735, assuming the post of organist at St John the Baptist’s Church and instituting a series of subscription concerts that would eventually became the Newcastle Musical Society. In 1736 Avison was appointed organist at the city’s most important church, St Nicholas, a position he would also hold until his death in Newcastle on 9th or 10th May 1770.

Avison was also a provocative writer and critic, and tended to express his highly individual opinions with passion. He threw down the gauntlet with particular force in his 1752 treatise An Essay on Musical Expression, where he claimed that ‘expression’ was more important than following the formal rules of composition. He also implied that Geminiani was a better composer than that English icon, George Frideric Handel, writing that ‘the greatest in instrumental Music…[was] Geminiani, whose Elegance and Spirit of Composition ought to have been much more our Pattern’. The ensuing storm of protest did not faze Avison, who remained steadfast in his admiration of the Italian composer. Geminiani, for his part, reciprocated with equally complimentary words about his distinguished English protégé. For example, after visiting Avison in 1760 to hear his thirteen-year old son Edward play, Geminiani wrote ‘My friend, I love all your productions. You are my heir. This boy will be yours… to raise up geniuses like him is the only way to perpetuate music.’

At the time of his death, Avison was recognized as the leading musician of Northern England. The obituary in the Newcastle Courant of 12th May 1770 acknowledged the esteem in which he was held, and also remarked on Avison’s modest and attractive personality: ‘His loss is greatly lamented by all that had the pleasure of his acquaintance, for he was much valued for the amiableness of his private character as admired for his skill in the profession, and for his excellent compositions.’

Avison composed chamber music, accompanied keyboard sonatas and vocal works, but the largest part of his compositional output consists of the more than fifty orchestral concertos. Not surprisingly, Avison’s model for these works was the Italian concerto grosso of Arcangelo Corelli and Geminiani. These two composers enjoyed an enduring popularity in England throughout the eighteenth century, especially Corelli. The English music historian Charles Burney observed in 1789 that ‘The Concertos of Corellis [sic] seem to have withstood all the attacks of time and fashion … they preclude criticism and make us forget that there is any other music of the same kind existing’. Avison agreed, and made it clear what he thought about current fashions: ‘I have also endeavored to avoid the rapid style of Composition now in vogue … Its Reign will not be of long continuance … If any Person doubt the Force of this Truth … Let him attend to a Concerto of Corelli or Geminiani.’

Avison’s concertos of Opus 3 and Opus 4 are written in this Italian concerto grosso style, in which a string orchestra 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 for virtuosic display. Avison’s concerti grossi also made it possible for ‘gentlemen’ musicians to play in the less demanding ripieno sections. One of these gentlemen members was the astronomer William Herschel, the discoverer of the planet Uranus.

Although Avison generally favoured the fourmovement slow-fast-slow-fast pattern of the standard concerto grosso in most of his works in this genre, the concertos on this recording find Avison in an experimental mood. Most noteworthy is Avison’s departure from the four-movement standard. Op. 3, No. 4, for example, features five movements, the second slow movement being divided into two sections. Opus 4 is even more adventurous: the third concerto has nine movements and Nos. 4 and 5 have five independent sections. Op. 4, No. 6 uses a grand total of ten movements, including two fugues that recall the earlier seventeenth-century style. Avison also experiments with the harmonic language in these two sets. For example, the composer uses tonalities for some second slow movements that depart from the customary relative major/minor or dominant harmony, as for example in Op. 3, No. 6 and Op. 4, No. 8, and one concerto, Op. 4, No. 4, never returns to the tonic (home) key at all.

Opus 3 was published in 1751. The lengthy Preface, which Avison included in almost all of his compositions, contains valuable information on performance practices, including the number of instruments needed to balance the concertino and ripieno, and the correct manner of playing the harpsichord continuo. Avison also tells us here that he avoided using wind instruments because ‘these are also so different in their Tone and Register from those of the Stringed Kind, besides the irremediable Disagreement of their rising in their Pitch, while the other are probably falling’. In other words, they were always out of tune.

Opus 4 appeared in 1755 with a dedication to Lady Milbanke, Avison’s harpsichord student and patron. From this dedication we learn that these works were performed before being published: ‘It was Your Ladyships Approbation of these Pieces in their detached state and the Singular Advantage they gained from your graceful Performance which first induced me to think of this Publication.’

After his experiments with Opus 3 and Opus 4, Avison returned to the more conventional Italian concerto grosso model for his subsequent concerto publications, Op. 6, Op. 9 and Op. 10. Nevertheless, the concertos on this recording remained among Avison’s most enduring works. He would later republish them, along with a revised version of Opus 6, in his 1758 collection Twenty Six Concertos, and they continued to be performed after the composer’s death. The Concerto Op. 4, No. 4 was particularly popular with the Concert of Ancient Music, appearing regularly on their programmes between 1785 and 1812.

Mark Kroll

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