Recorded: September 2002 at Chapelle de l'Hopital Notre-Dame de Bon Secours, Paris
In these remarquable transcriptions of Scarlatti sonatas Charles Avsison manages an enchanting metamorphosis that delights us by its energy ! Concertini and tutti mingle into a genuine musical dialogue in the spirit of Haendel's or Corelli's Concerti Grossi.
Catalogue 2007 at a special price!
Recorded in September 2002 in Paris, chapelle de l'hopital Notre-Dame de Bon Secours and previously published as Alpha 031.
All Music Guide
========= from the cover ==========
Charles Avison (1709-1770) and Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) present a wide contrast in that Scarlatti's music is still played and Avison's is not. Ralph Kirkpatrick, the harpsichordist and scholar who wrote the definitive biography of Scarlatti, felt that Avison was "an excellent composer who is unjustly forgotten." He goes on to say quite aptly, "He [Avison] has been recalled largely in literary circles as the subject of one of Browning's most flatulent musical poems."
Kirkpatrick also reminds us of Laurence Sterne's reference to Avison in Tristram Shandy. Sterne writes of Tristram's father, seemingly in a rage, "... and the devil and all had broke loose, the whole piece, Madam, must have been played off like the sixth of Avison Scarlatti-con furia, like mad ..."
The composer who so caught the attention of Browning and Sterne undoubtedly created his arrangements of Scarlatti sonatas for strings because of the widespread popularity of Domenico's music in England in the early 18th century. Charles Burney, writer of one of the first histories of music in English, tells us: "... Scarlatti's were not only the pieces with which every young performer displayed his powers of execution, but were the wonder and delight of every hearer who had a spark of enthusiasm about him, and could feel new and bold effects intrepidly produced by the breach of almost all the old and established rules of composition." To accommodate this enthusiasm, numerous collections of Scarlatti's keyboard music were published in England, including, in 1744, the transcriptions that are the basis of this recording.
Avison and the small group of Englishmen who were active in promoting Scarlatti's music have been described, somewhat oddly, as an English Scarlatti cult.3 Burney himself used the term "Scarlatti sect" in his history. The so-called cult was not a formal organization. A student-teacher relationship existed between some of the principals, but mainly they shared a liking for Scarlatti's music evidenced in their work.
The founder of the Scarlatti cult was Thomas Roseingrave (1690-1766). As a young man Roseingrave studied music in Italy, where he knew and admired Domenico and spent a good deal of time with him. On his return to England Roseingrave became active in the performance of Scarlatti's music in London. Scarlatti may have visited there for some of this activity, but this has not been established as fact. In 1725 Roseingrave became the organist at the fashionable St. George's Church, Hanover Square, which Haendel attended.
In 1739, he published 42 harpsichord lessons, as the sonatas were called, by Scarlatti. This two-volume edition was in competition with a 1738 collection of Scarlatti called Essercizi per Gravicembalo. the source of which is unknown, although Scarlatti himself may have been involved in the publication.
One unusual feature of the 1739 Roseingrave edition was the list of subscribers. They were professional musicians for the most part, rather than the aristocratic group usually encountered on such a list. Included were Charles Avison, Thomas Arne, William Boyce, Maurice Greene, John Stanley, the Italian Francesco Geminiani, and Joseph Mahoon. (Mahoon was "Harpsichord Maker to His Majesty, and his name can be read on the harpsichord drawn by Hogarth in the second plate of "The Rake's Progress," which dates from 1735).
Avison was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His parents were musicians and were probably his first teachers. As a young man he may have studied in Italy, but we have no indication that he was introduced to Scarlatti's music at that time.
Upon Avison's return to England (if indeed he left), he studied with Geminiani (1687-1762), the violinist and composer who greatly influenced his development. Avison wrote some 50 to 80 concertos, depending on whom you consult, as well as organ voluntaries, trios, and sonatas for violin or flute with harpsichord. Almost all of his works were commercially successful publications.
Avison and Geminiani were unusually popular composers, particularly of concertos. An 18th century English music publisher could normally expect to sell approximately 150 copies of a work. Concertos by these composers, however, would run to several editions of around 500 copies each.
Avison also worked as a church organist and teacher of flute, harpsichord, and violin. He instigated subscription concerts in Newcastle c.1735, which were the first concerts in that city and among the first such events to be established in England on a large scale. He is particularly known as the author of An Essay on Musical Expression, published in 1752, which gives his views on the aesthetics of music and practical ideas related to its performance7. It shows him to be a widely read intellectual who had many helpful ideas we can use in recreating music of that time. Cafe Zimmermann consulted the work carefully in making this recording.
In 1742/43 Avison arranged two Scarlatti sonatas for strings (K. 29 and K. 21) to test the market for such works for the many amateur groups in the country. He proposed to sell "twelve grand concertos for violins" made from Scarlatti's music. He wished to have 100 subscribers before the works would be published. In 1744 12 concertos were printed with 143 subscribers.
In making these transcriptions, Avison capitalized not only on the interest in Scarlatti's music, but also on the popularity of the concerto grosso form. In 1715 John Walsh published Corelli's Opus 6 concertos, which caused many composers to imitate this style. These composers wrote concertos after the Corelli example and transcribed other contemporary works into the concerto form. There was, then, no lack of precedent for Avison to follow.
There seems little doubt that Roseingrave's two-volume Scarlatti collection was the major source used by Avison to make his 1744 transcriptions. Avison subscribed to the edition, as has been stated. He arranged 23 sonatas that are common to both the 1738 Essercizi and the 1739 Roseingrave but also six pieces found only in Roseingrave. The tide page of Avison's transcriptions says they were "done from two Books of Lessons for the Harpsichord," which is further evidence that the 1739 collection was his principal source. The source of 29 of the 48 movements comprising the 12 four-movement concertos is thus accounted for. Ten of the remaining 19 sonatas used as movements have been located in the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice in a Ms. dated 1742. This was the property, until her death in 1758, of Queen Maria Barbara of Spain, for whom most of Scarlatti's sonatas were written.
It is hardly possible that Avison used the queen's 1742 copy but obviously worked from sources unknown to us today. There are, however, still nine movements whose source is unidentified, and there is the strong possibility that Avison may have written some of them himself. This is particularly true of concerto X, movement 3, and concerto XII, movements 1 and 3. These movements are slow, like the other six, and are quite short, with block chords giving the players obvious opportunity for improvisation. They serve as an introduction to the fast movement following.
The chart below identifies the Scarlatti sonatas used as movements for this recording.
concerto movement K.
VI 1 ?
III 1 89b
V 1 ?
IX 1 81b
XI 1 ?
XII 1 ?
When amateur groups bought Avison's concertos, they received music in "seven parts": (1) first violin solo; (2) second violin solo; (3) tenor (viola); (4) cello solo; (5) ripieno first violin; (6) ripieno second violin; and (7) ripieno bass (celli and/or double basses).
The ripieno parts duplicate the respective solo parts. These solo parts play continuously throughout each movement while the ripieno players are silent at times, creating textural contrast. Avison advises that there may be up to six ripieno first violins, four ripieno second violins, four basses (celli), and two double basses. The harpsichord and/or other chording instruments played from a bass part. He is vague about the viola, which is called neither ripieno or solo. He implies it should be considered a solo instrument, making a string quartet of the concertino, as they called the solo instruments. Several other English composers followed this practice, as opposed to the concertino trio of two violins and cello used by the Italians.
Strangely, Avison treats the viola as a ripieno instrument. The viola plays only when the ripieno plays in eight of the twelve concertos and with the soloist alone in only a few measures in the other four. Usually Avison has the viola double another part, and the viola could well be left out. Avison speaks of the difficulty of finding good viola players, which may partially explain the problem10. A selling point to the buyers of Avison's publications was, no doubt, that any group from a trio to a small orchestra could perform the pieces with almost equal success. The Cafe Zimmermann answers the viola question pragmatically by using two of them, one solo and one ripieno, a solution that works beautifully.
Avison's approach to transferring Scarlatti's keyboard idiom to strings is straightforward in that the majority of orchestra passages are literal reproductions of the keyboard setting. Yet there are a number of changes that he must have felt made the arrangements more suitable for the many amateur groups that purchased them for convivial evenings of music making. The changes might seem gratuitous to some today, but Avison knew his business, as his sales demonstrated.
In the market testing he did with his 1742-43 Scarlatti concerto, he printed on the back of the title page: These lessons for harpsichord being extremely difficult, and many delightful passages entirely disguised, either with capricious divisions, or an unnecessary repetition in many places . . . therefore forming them into parts [for strings] and taking off the mask which concealed their natural beauty . . . [will] render them more easy and familiar . ..".
To do this, Avison made numerous cuts that are bridged over unobtrusively, or so it seems if one does not know the original. Sequential patterns are almost invariably shortened. Measures that are repeats or only slight variants of the preceding measures may be eliminated. He often made small changes in the melody so the strings would not have so wide an interval to play as in the keyboard at that point.
The most frequent change of significance made by Avison was to the bass. Scarlatti's idiomatic keyboard version was sometimes transformed into a typical Baroque march-like line, which Avison apparently felt was better suited for an orchestral setting than the original.
There are no apparent reasons to explain these changes, other than perhaps his own judgments about Scarlatti's music and his public's ability to understand and play the concertos. Fortunately, the sonatas sound delightful in their new form. Does anything else matter?
-Dr. Jack Cassingham (Professor Emeritus University of Wisconsin-Whitewater)