The Concerto in England: Handel & contemporaries

The Concerto in England: Handel & contemporaries
Avison Ensemble
Kings Place. 30 September 2016

Concertos by Avison, Garth, Handel, Herschel and Stanley.

As part of the Kings Place ‘Baroque Unwrapped’ season, the Newcastle-based Avison Ensemble explored the world of the 18th century concerto, and the equally interesting world of English provincial musical life. Charles Avison (pictured) was a Newcastle born organist and composer who absorbed the musical style of Geminiani and Scarlatti during a short period in London before being enticed back to Newcastle with the promise of prestigious organist post complete with a new organ. He made a handsome living through teaching and arranging subscription concerts. He was also a fierce reviewer of other composers, including Handel.

Avison’s 1758 Concerto Grosso in D (Op6/9) was an excellent example of the rather conservative type of piece that he wrote for the Newcastle Music Society. A rather bucolic opening reminiscent of hunting horns over a drone bass leads to a scurrying fugue, a gentle Siciliana and a bustling final Vivace, with syncopated writing between the two violin soloists, (on this occasion, Pavlo Beznosiuk and Katarin Bengtson).

A colleague of Avison was the Durham organist and composer John Garth. As well as playing in Avison’s orchestra, he also ran a companion concert series in Stockton and Durham. Although only published two years after Avison’s Opus 6 concertos, Garth’s cello concertos have a far more advanced musical language and style. Richard Tunnicliffe and the Avison Ensemble have done much to restore interest in Garth, with their 2007 recording of his cello concertos. Garth centred the Concerto No 5 on a beautifully elegiac central Adagio affettuoso, with lively outer movements. He was far more harmonically adventurous that Avison. Richard Tunnicliffe is very clearly in love with this music, and gave a thoroughly absorbing performance, full of life.

William Herschel01.jpgAnother brief colleague of Avison’s in Newcastle was William Herschel (pictured). Born in Hanover, he came to England with the militia of the Hanoverian George II, where he played oboe in the military band. Shorn of his military duties, he soon started life as a relatively itinerant organist and performing musician, moving round several northern cities before settling in Bath as organist of the Octagon Chapel and, later, director of the Bath orchestra. An interest in astronomy developed through various musical friends, leading to a move to Slough and a career as a pioneering astronomer that brought him the fame and the honorary title of The King’s Astronomer), the discovery of Uranus being just one of his achievements. His Violin Concerto in D minor must have been written for a pretty competent soloist, its feisty solo passages here demonstrated through some forceful playing by Pavlo Beznosiuk. The rich textures of the central Adagio assai made for a welcome contrast.

The word ‘provincial’ has different meanings, according to context. Although the music by these three composers was certainly geographically provincial, there were times when it veered rather close to the alternative interpretation of the word. In this programme, this notion was rather reinforced by comparing Avison, Garth and Herschel with the leading London composers, Handel and John Stanley. It was perhaps helpful that the chosen Handel Organ Concerto (Op 7/2) was one of his least well-known and, arguably, least successful with rather predictable composed movements surrounding one of his famous Organo ad libitum indications. This could have meant a short link passage between the two written-out movements, but was here interpreted as a complete ad-lib movement. Soloist Roger Hamilton set off on a rather anarchic melodic journey, not, as far as I could tell, based on any existing Handel work.

Roger Hamilton was also soloist in John Stanley’s excellent Op 10/2 Organ Concerto, his sure technique very apparent in the clarity of the finger-twisting passage work, here played at some speed. A friend of, and musical successor to Handel, Stanley is a composer little-known outside the organ world, so this was a timely reminder of how important he was to London’s 18th century musical life. As if to rub further salt into the provincial wounds, the evening ended with one of Handel’s masterful Concerto Grosso (Op 6/11), a work closely related to one of his little-known ‘Second Set’ of Organ Concertos.

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The Avison Ensemble are an excellent example of present day provincial music making, with their wide range of educational and concert activities in Newcastle and the North East. Through their recordings of the likes of Avison and Garth, they have brought music of that region, and era, to public notice. They also act as a training orchestra for young musicians. In this London performance, I wasn’t too sure how many of the players were Newcastle based, but there could be practical reasons for this.

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