Church Sonatas Opus 1 & 3
The Avison Ensemble
Pavlo Beznosiuk (director & violin), Caroline Balding (violin), Paula Chateauneuf (archute & guitar), Richard Tunnicliffe (cello), Roger Hamilton (harpsichord & organ)
2 CDs on Linn Records, CKD 414. Also available to download - Studio Master | CD Quality | MP3
• BBC Music Magazine 'Chamber Choice', October 2014 •
BBC Music Magazine
'I have enjoyed every one of the discs in this series ... and this last set more than lives up to expectations.'
Kate Bolton, October 2014
'Chamber Choice', October 2014. Chaste and faultless Corelli. The Avison Ensemble began their complete Corelli series in 2012 with the celebrated Concerti Grossi Op. 6, before turning their sights to the earlier, and more intimate, violin and trio sonatas. This two-disc set, comprising the Trio Sonatas Opp. 1 and 3, brings the cycle to a close. Both collections, dating from the 1680s, consist of so-called 'church sonatas (sonate da chiesa) – the term something of a misnomer since they seem not to have been played in church, though their muted serenity would have been a fine complement to private devotion. An obsessive perfectionist, Corelli polished these works into gleaming gems. As a composer who played the violin, he wrote for the instrument idiomatically – Corelli was never flashy, unlike his more flamboyant younger contemporary Vivaldi.
I have enjoyed every one of the discs in this series from Linn Records so far, and this last set more than lives up to expectations. The five members of The Avison Ensemble parley with the familiarity of old friends, yet their playing always retains that sense of gracious etiquette associated with the noble Roman academies for which the music was intended. Nothing is forced or exaggerated or overly mannered; tempos, ensemble and balance – all seem effortlessly and intuitively right. The string sound is lucid, while a chamber organ and an archlute add warmth to the continuo. These are, in sum, sincere and poised accounts, a fitting tribute to the 'chaste and faultless' character of the composer and his music.
The Sunday Times
'The illustrious five players of the Avison Ensemble offer shapely readings, phrasing beautifully and making the most of every nuance.'
SP, 20 April 2014
With this release of the Op. 1 and Op. 3 trio sonatas, the Avison Ensemble's edition of Corelli is complete. Unlike the Op. 2 and Op. 4 chamber sonatas, these two dozen sonate da chiesa (church sonatas) steer away from dance forms, adhering largely to abstract movements. But the genre title was not the composer's, and the music is intimate and personal. Arresting ideas dart around in the faster movements, while the slower ones are characterised by their expressive sequences and suspensions. The illustrious five players of the Avison Ensemble offer shapely readings, phrasing beautifully and making the most of every nuance.
'... classy conclusion to their distinguished Corellian project.'
David Vickers, July 2014
This double set complete the Avison Ensemble’s survey of Corelli’s published opuses. Both of these Roman publications contain 12 trio sonatas apiece, and the majority of them adhere to the structure of the so-called sonata da chiesa (i.e. slow-fast-slow-fast), hence the Avison Ensemble’s title of ‘Church Sonatas’ – although the original editions do not actually call any of them sonata da chiesa and the formula does not necessarily mean Corelli envisaged them for ecclesiastical surroundings.
Corelli’s dedication of Op. 1 (1681) to his patron, the exiled Queen Christina of Sweden, calls these sonatas ‘the fruits of my study’. They are invested with an exquisite sense of harmonic balance by violinists Pavlo Beznosiuk and Caroline Balding, supported with tasteful delicacy by Richard Tunnicliffe (cello), Paula Chateauneuf (archlute) and Roger Hamilton (organ). The Avison Ensemble excel at the madrigalian counterpoint, perfect proportions and lyrical taste evident in the slow introductions to No 3 and No 12, whereas the Vivace first movement of the fourth sonata is elegantly alert. Tunnicliffe’s shading of the basso continuo line has the perfect amount of chiaroscuro in the penultimate Allegro of No 5, whereas Chateauneuf’s dexterously articulated archlute takes centre stage for the rolling bass-line of the Allegro in No 8. Dance forms such as the sarabande-style Adagio of No 9 are judged beautifully, although Beznosiuk and Balding’s conversational bowing also captures the muscular shock of chromatic falling figures in the second movement of No 11.
Op 3 (1689) was dedicated to Duke Francesco II d’Este of Modena. The interplay between the five players is marvelously intuitive, such as the lean Presto that concludes No 4. On rare occasions Hamilton switches to a harpsichord for the sake of textural variety, such as the crispness it gives to the allegros in No 2 – although the highlight, as so often in Op 3, is the slow third movement (likewise, the largos of No 3 and No 8 are sublime). Any hint that these conscientious musicians might have merely motored though all 24 sonatas formulaically is contradicted by the classy conclusion to their distinguished Corellian project.
'A fine conclusion to a tercentennial survey of the Baroque master.'
Robin Stowell, 30 June 2014
A fine conclusion to a tercentennial survey of the Baroque master.
I wrote positively about the previous releases in this 300th anniversary series (see The Strad, June and October 2013), and this final issue sustains all their virtues. The Avison’s playing is substantially accurate, accomplished and free from misplaced mannerism, displaying appropriate vitality and panache as well as grace and flexibility. The players’ refined musicianship and unanimous interaction draw one into the sensibility of the period, giving their accounts a reassuring sense of fluent inevitability. The church recording is close, yet never astringent. However, the balance is inevitably contrived, with the violins and larger-than-life archlute much in the foreground.
Listeners will be captivated by the spirited interchanges between these players, the voicing and spontaneity of their contrapuntal interplay and the neatness of their articulations, particularly in the numerous fugal and dance-inspired movements. Violinists Pavlo Beznosiuk and Caroline Balding take the lion’s share of the melodic interest, but bass violinist Richard Tunnicliffe and archlutenist Paula Chateauneuf clearly enjoy contributing to the dialogue. Tunnicliffe’s agility is especially notable in both allegros of op.3 no.1, as is Chateauneuf’s in the exhilarating fugal Allegro of op.3 no.5.
The unassuming eloquence and expressiveness of the slower music will also enchant. Melodies are sweetly sung with pliant phrasing, due weight is given to adventurous chordal progressions and the ubiquitous chains of suspensions are nurtured with messe di voce and a little vibrato. Relevant cadences are embellished and other affecting extempore ornamention is added as appropriate. Sir John Hawkins’s comment (1776) that op.3 no.9 ‘has drawn tears from many an eye’ continues to ring true.
International Record Review
'... performances of captivating freshness, vitality and impressive depth of understanding.'
Michael Jameson, 27 May 2014
Previous Linn issues from the Avison Ensemble and Pavlo Beznosiuk have enhanced our expectations and enriched our appreciation of Corelli’s groundbreaking instrumental music. Now bringing their former winning ways to the Church Sonatas, Opp. 1 and 3, their two-year long Corellian pilgrimage reaches its conclusion, in performances of captivating freshness, vitality and impressive depth of understanding (the earlier discs were reviewed in February, March and November 2013). As Charles Avison (after whom this group is named) wrote in 1752, ‘the immortal works of Corelli are in the hands of everyone; and accordingly we find that from him many of our best modern composers have generally deduced their elements of harmony’. It was a discerning, if not entirely accurate remark, since at the time, copies of Corelli’s works, far from being ‘in the hands of everyone’, were coveted, bartered for and sometimes even fought over as musicians everywhere pursued his latest compositions.
Corelli published his Op. 1 set of 12 Sonate di Chiesa in Rome in 1681. Soon afterwards, they were being simultaneously issued by publishing houses throughout Europe, and as Simon D. I. Fieming’s instructive booklet notes relate, they ‘remained in print throughout the eighteenth century, a feat unrivalled by any earlier collection’. Corelli himself did not categorize these pieces as ‘Church’ Sonatas, though shortly after their publication, an entry in Sébastien de Brossard’s Dictionnaire described the genre as ‘proper for the Church – beginning usually with a grave and majestic movement, suited to the sanctity and dignity of such a place, after which comes a gay and animated fugue …’. Scored for two violins, played here by Beznosiuk and Caroline Balding, with basso continuo provided by Richard Tunnicliffe and Paula Chateauneuf, precisely what Corelli expected as far as the bass instrument was concerned still remains unclear. It was usual at the time to employ either archlute or, more commonly, violone, though a cello has been used throughout this series. The important keyboard continuo is once again thoughtfully realized on harpsichord and organ by Roger Hamilton. However, it is Beznosiuk’s daring leadership and audacious virtuosity that constantly brings these superlative accounts to life with palpable urgency and realism. It would be misleading to single out any individual sonata for special comment, but amongst the best known, and typical of the series, is Sonata No. 9, in the notoriously affecting key of F minor, its opening Grave section made even more piquant by the liberal use of diminished seventh chords in the bass line, over which the two violins weave an inexpressibly beautiful dialogue. Small wonder, then, that the historian Sir John Hawkins wrote in 1776 that it ‘had drawn a tear from many an eye’, yet the succeeding Vivace, in barbed fugal style, and the final Allegro reveal the fiery brilliance of Corelli’s creativity, and there’s no one better equipped to convey its sense of frisson and passion than Beznosiuk.
It was normal for Corelli to leave the penultimate movements of the Church Sonatas unembellished and one of the most engaging features of the Avison Ensemble’s performances is that while there’s nothing showy or ostentatious about its use of ornamentation, it always seems genuinely spontaneous. That registers in virtually every slow movement, but these performances are also firmly rooted in period scholarship, too. Beznosiuk must have read Georg Muffat’s instructional guide on how to play these pieces. The opening movements are nearly always interspersed with sudden slower interjections and these were, says Muffat David Ponsford Nimbus (a student of Corelli’s, incidentally), to be played fulsomely and dramatically: ‘In the opening Sonatas and Fugues and in the affecting Graves that are interpolated, the Italian manner is to be chiefly observed … those experienced in this art will readily understand this.’
As for rival performances, the only serious competition here is the excellent Chandos Chaconne survey by the Purcell Quartet, which brings much fine playing, though tempos are less extreme in fast sections, while recorded sound is brightly focused and clear but lacks the spatial realism of Linn’s production. Jakob Lindberg’s authoritative playing on both theorbo and archlute adds an extra dimension to the continuo’s tonal palette and this set has long been a strong contender here. On balance, though, I prefer the Avison’s more spontaneous and vital approach, which never lets historical or stylistic correctness obstruct enjoyment of the music. There remains Enrico Gatti’s patchy and uneven recording on Tactus with the Ensemble Aurora. Though decently recorded, these accounts seem four-square and uninspired beside the Avison performances, which must now be the natural first choice here. The last word, however, belongs to Roger North, who memorably described these works as ‘a true pantomime or resemblance of humanity in all its states, actions, passions, and affections’. He could just as easily have been describing these mesmerizing performances themselves – there is none better!
'A real sense of enjoyment in the music and in their music-making. This results in very fine performances indeed.'
Stuart Sillitoe, January 2015
When you consider the important position occupied by the Op. 1 Sonate a trè, or church sonatas in the development of the trio sonata you would think that there would be more recordings of them. After all, Christopher Hogwood described them as “the most influential single source of the whole period ... a central reference point for all discussion of the trio sonata.” ("The Trio Sonata", 1979). That being said there are a few complete recordings of Op. 1, all of which give these works the title Sonate da chiesa. This is despite the fact that Corelli himself never described them as 'church sonatas'. The epithet seems to be down to Corelli including an organ amongst the continuo instruments. This has led to many thinking that these were for use during the Mass. Whilst they would sit nicely during the service, it is known that they were composed for performance at the residence of their dedicatee, Christina, the former Queen of Sweden. She, in turn, is known to have had two organs in her music salon where she held musical evenings. Whatever the case, Corelli, who was thought of as the finest violinist in Italy at the time of publication, built on what had gone before. He produced the seminal set of trio sonatas, those which came to be seen as the model for those that followed. Most of the twelve sonatas are composed with four movements, with a slow-fast-slow-fast structure. To have eight out of the twelve composed in this manner, whilst not unique, was something new. Only numbers 4, 7, 9 and 10 deviated from this pattern.
If the Op. 1 works are seen as the all-important first fruits of Corelli’s da chiesa compositional genius, the Op. 3 group have come to be seen as the apogee, with the excellent booklet notes quoting Sir John Hawkins who in 1776 stated that the Opus 1 were “an essay towards the perfection to which he afterwards arrived” — the perfection being these later sonatas. One can trace the composer’s progression with these sonatas of 1689 being the high water mark, Corelli’s “perfection” as discussed by Hawkins. Their spirit of adventure and artistic development mark them out as the composer's finest trio sonatas. I even prefer them to his much-praised Op. 4. I find myself having to agree with Hawkins when it comes to the concept of perfection. Despite this, when it comes to recordings, they have only fared a little better than Op. 1. Perhaps it is the term ‘church sonatas’ which puts the recording companies off. All I know is that with music like this, more converts should be won over, whether or not religious.
My benchmark has been the exceptionally fine recording of the first four opuses by The Purcell Quartet and Jakob Lindberg on Chandos CHAN 0692. However, these new recordings which like the Purcells employ a cello rather than the prescribed violone or bass violin has a slight edge over their predecessor. The Avison Ensemble adopts a slightly more relaxed tempo than the Purcells but there is not that much difference in the overall timings: about five minutes per disc longer. This leads to more time to take in the music. I particularly enjoy the interplay between the performers on this new recording. There seems a real sense of enjoyment in the music and in their music-making. This results in very fine performances indeed; ones with which I find it very hard to fault. Add to this the excellent sound quality - something of a given with Linn - and the wonderfully helpful and informative booklet essay by Simon D. I. Fleming, and you are on to a real winner. I have even been tempted to order Linn's Opp. 2 and 4 chamber sonatas set.
This disc takes its place alongside the Avison's other discs in Linn's complete chamber music series: Opp. 2 and 4 CKD 413; Op. 5 Violin Sonatas CKD 412 and Op. 6 Concerti Grossi CKD 411.
'Another valuable series of recordings completed in style by the Avison Ensemble.'
Brian Wilson, 22 May 2014
Another valuable series of recordings completed in style by the Avison Ensemble and Linn, who now have the complete run of Corelli's works from Op.1 to Op.6. I've used up all my superlatives in praising the performances of Opp.2 and 4 (CKD413) Op.5 (CKD413) and Op.6 (CDKD411), so I need only say that this is just as enjoyable as those other recordings. Don't be put off by the designation sonate da chiesa - church sonatas - this music is no more stuffy than Corelli's sonate da camera and concerti grossi ...
'The performances are, as noted by others concerning the Avison Ensemble's previous recordings, immaculate.'
It may seem odd that the Avison Ensemble have left the Op. 1 and certainly the Op. 3 Sonatas a chiesa a tre until the end of their complete edition. In fact, in many ways, this double CD package reveals that they have left the purest wine until the end. Indeed it is the purity of Corelli that especially struck his contemporaries including Dr. Burney, as Simon Fleming reminds us in his extensive and fascinating notes and those of us now who are fortunate enough to enjoy such wonderful performances as these. Also Fleming recaps for us how much his works were imitated at the time, especially in the Britain.
Corelli never used the term 'Church Sonatas' or the seeming opposite term 'Sonatas di camera' (Chamber Sonatas). These were added later and there is really little distinction. As most music students know it's really a matter of terminology. In these 'chiesa' works the movements, normally four in each Sonata, are simply given Italian titles. For instance the G minor Op.1 no.10 goes: 1. Grave attacca into Allegro 2. Allegro 3. Adagio 4. Allegro. Chamber Sonata movements might have titles like 'Corrente', 'Sarabanda', 'Gavotta' or 'Giga'. It does not prevent these latter works including more serious passages of fugue and counterpoint or the former works from having dance rhythms as for example the strong feeling of a Sarabande in Op.1 no.9 or inspiring the Giga-type Allegros.
The G minor Sonata just highlighted is not typical of the rest of the set in that it has two Allegros side by side, one of which emerges from the opening 'Grave'. The G major Op.1 no.9 has, as a finale, an Allegro which fades into an Adagio, another rare feature. In the Op.3 Sonatas the pattern is well set, as slow, fast, slow, fast except for the last. The grander number 12 has the first movement divided Grave-Allegro-Adagio followed by a Vivace then an Allegro which segues into an Adagio and two more movements to end with alternating tempi.
In the 1680s Corelli's patron was that rather tiresome woman Queen Christina of Sweden. She may well have had exercised a strong hand over what she wanted the composer to produce. Anyway these 'first fruits of my study' - Op. 1 is dedicated to her - have a wonderful sense of balance and taste. The counterpoint is almost renaissance in its purity. The harmonic suspensions are delicate and, apparently to his first audience, quite 'tear-jerking'. The Op. 3 set is dedicated to Duke Francesco II d'Este of Modena who later became King James II of England's brother-in-law. It's difficult to state firmly that there had been much technical or stylistic change or development in the ensuing eight years. Indeed Corelli's consistency is remarkable. However, perhaps the suspensions are more meaningfully achieved and the fugal movements are a little more developed.
The performances are, as noted by others concerning the Avison Ensemble's previous recordings, immaculate. Corelli's talkative two-part violin writing is sensitively handled by Beznosiuk and Caroline Balding. It is also beautifully balanced, for example in the final intertwining lines of the Allegro of Op.1 no.12. The players have worked together so often in this repertoire that they seem instinctively to shade and manipulate the phrases as if one voice. Occasionally Roger Hamilton moves the harpsichord as in Op.3 no. 2 which adds a new colour. Paula Chateauneuf is always perfectly secure and seems to guide the textures secretly from the side-lines. Richard Tunnicliffe distinctively adds dynamic shadings in almost every phrase.
Neither can one fault the recording. I have been involved in recording at the church just outside Cambridge at Chesterton and can vouch for its quiet atmosphere and perfect acoustic.
If I had to pick one of the sonatas it might be Op.1 No.4 in A minor. Its opening is full of that chatter I mentioned as is the third. The Adagio is just a series of delicious falling scales. The players understand every strain of these simple, direct but perfect ideas. Indeed I was looking at paintings by Jean-Baptiste Chardin (1699-1799) whilst listening. Chardin was a painter from another country who took everyday scenes as his subject. What an apt pairing these two great men of the baroque make.
This Linn album comes with the aforementioned essay, colour photos and the usual artist biographies. I hope that I have encouraged you to search out this wonderful recording and others in the Avison/Linn Corelli Edition.
'There are a few other recordings of these works, but in all respects, this one just does it better.'
David Vernier, 20 May 2014
Although the Op. 6 concerti grossi get all the attention on disc, Arcangelo Corelli's Op. 1 and 3 trio sonatas deserve equal respect. And if you're looking for an ensemble and recording that deliver respectful, not to mention reference-quality performances, you'll find them on this excellent new release from The Avison Ensemble.
The rhythms are appropriately-necessarily-taut, the tempos suitably bright and compatible with their particular movements, the bowed-instrument timbres delightfully tangy and reedy, the plucked strings of the archlute pleasingly snappy. Sonically, the result is a vibrant, full-bodied quality that really lets us feel the special harmonic resonances, particularly scintillating in keys such as F, A, D, and G major.
Adhering primarily to the structural formula Slow-Fast-Slow-Fast, Corelli seems to possess an unlimited capacity for invention, especially in the way he so engagingly writes for the two violins, separately but equally in dialogue or sometimes in uniform rhythm, and joined by the cello either in imitation or with a line of its own. Hearing these sets of sonatas it's easy to understand why they were so widely popular - "remaining in print throughout the 18th century"- and were so stylistically influential and freely imitated.
If you're a violinist, you really want to play them, as they are so perfectly conceived for that instrument, so irresistibly fun and fanciful, musically and technically substantive; and for the listener, it's hard to imagine more agreeable ensemble writing, highlighted by the ever-stimulating conversational interplay. Beyond the trio of primary players, The Avison Ensemble keeps the continuo interesting with a combination of archlute, harpsichord, and organ, and the sound, from a Cambridge church, is representative of this label's best. There are a few other recordings of these works, but in all respects, this one just does it better.
'The Avison Ensemble has a homogeneous, silvery tone that serves the music well.'
James Manheim, 23 May 2014
Arcangelo Corelli was a pioneer in the church sonata (sonata da chiesa) as in so many other things. These chamber works (often in four movements, slow-fast-slow-fast) were not necessarily performed in churches. They are trio sonatas for two violins and a continuo, here realized by a cello (an unlikely choice for such early music), an archlute, and harpsichord or organ. Britain's Avison Ensemble has a homogeneous, silvery tone that serves the music well, emphasizing its classic qualities and nicely underplaying the virtuoso touches that Corelli wrote into or implied for the violin parts. This release completes a Corelli cycle by the group, thus ending with the composer's earlier music. Probably the later works are preferable for those wanting just one release in the series; the Op. 1 set here, although extraordinarily influential, lacks really memorable tunes, and the set as a whole, featuring a sequence of 98 movements just a bit more than a minute long in most cases, may be better appreciated in pieces than as a whole. But listeners won't understand the Baroque trio sonata without hearing these works, and the double album should find a place on many shelves or hard drives (or in cloud spaces) of Baroque music. Linn's sound here, recorded at a church in the Cambridge suburb of Chesterton, evokes the Roman churches where this music, dedicated to Queen Christina of Sweden, may well have originally been performed.
'... musically affectionate, stylistically expert performances.'
Laurence Vittes, 16 May 2014
The Avison Ensemble finishes up their complete recording for Linn of Corelli’s chamber music, celebrating the the 300th anniversary of the composer’s death, with musically affectionate, stylistically expert but ultimately mostly dutiful performances of all 49 tracks of the Opus 1 and 3 Church Sonatas which became cornerstones of his wealth and reputation.
In music that really depends on making connections at a profoundly intimate level through nuance, color and virtuosity, and in which Beznosiuk and the Avisons have proved themselves capable of achieving on many of their previous recordings, here it sounds like 49 relentless instead of miraculous tracks. Very pleasant for extended background listening of the public radio classical music kind.
There is nothing wrong with the sound, recorded at St. George;’s Church in the Cambridge superb of Chesterton, which is warm and detailed in the conventional mode and with more breathing room in surround SACD, while Simon D.I. Fleming’s splendidly eliptical and informative liner notes give a dynamic sense of Corelli’s life and times.