The brightest star in the firmament of British 18th century music was unarguably George Frederick Handel, and his light burns so brightly that it often overwhelms our sight of other composers, especially those who worked outside the world of London theatre. The Avison Ensemble (the clue is in their name) have long championed the work of the 18th century Newcastle musician Charles Avison, and their concert in Hall Two of Sage Gateshead – amazingly, their first in this venue – gave us a taster not just of Avison, but of other composers with North East connections.

Pavlo Beznosiuk © Joanne Green
Pavlo Beznosiuk
© Joanne Green
It was only right that they should begin with Avison, and his Concerto Grosso in D Op 6 no.9 was an absolute joy. The Baroque formality of the opening bars soon gives way to a playfulness that was enhanced by the Avison Ensemble’s delicate sound, and their light touch. Throughout the concert nothing was ever overdone, or unnecessary: we heard quiet, intimate playing that sang through the melodies, their ornaments were slipped in tastefully, without any showiness, and the faster solo passages were consistently delivered with an easy grace. 

John Garth, John Stanley and William Herschel made up the other less-known British composers in the programme. Garth spent his life in County Durham, was a friend and musical collaborator of Avison: it seems that between them, they organised all the musical life of the North East. Cellist Richard Tunnicliffe introduced Garth’s Cello Concerto no. 5 in D minor by describing it as “tuneful and accessible, a piece that should be in the repertoire of all young budding cellists”, and it was indeed straightforward and unassuming, but lifted from being mundane by the affectionate, happy ensemble playing and Tunnicliffe’s silky solo lines. 

William Herschel must rank alongside Handel for fame and name-recognition, although not as a composer, for today he is remembered for his outstanding contribution to astronomy. He was first a musician though, and spent some time living in Sunderland, teaching music and playing violin in Avison’s orchestra. Like much of the music on the programme, the influence of the many Italian musicians who worked in London and the general fashion for Italian music was clear; in Herschel’s case it came through in the faster solo passages, and in the tremolando bass line, delivered with quiet power by Richard Tunnicliffe and Jan Zahourek’s violone. Soloist Pavlo Beznosiuk delivered clean, unaffected playing, even through the most energetic writing, with an charming pianissimo solo in the middle Adagio.

In addition to his duties on the harpischord, Roger Hamilton gave us two enjoyable organ concertos. The Op.10 no.2 concerto shows that there’s more to John Stanley than that Trumpet Voluntary; two lively movements with a ceaselessly bubbling organ part clearly showed Stanley’s own skill as an organist, and Hamilton played with obvious enjoyment and verve. Earlier we had heard him playing Handel’s Organ Concerto no. 8, a piece probably written to serve as interval music during a performance of Handel’s Saul, and this modest piece ensured that for most of the concert, the other composers weren’t upstaged by Handel. Hamilton provided a thoroughly well-fitted improvisation at the required point and brought spontaneity to Handel’s own written-out improvisations.

I spent most of the evening riveted by the degree of communication and trust between the eight players, and this meant that they were able to bring a lot of freedom to the way they played. This came through particularly as they worked their way around Hamilton’s improvisatory passages in the Handel, and also meant that they were utterly unperturbed during the Handel Concerto Grosso that closed the concert, when one player suffered hand cramp and Joanne Green stepped across and seamlessly took over the trickiest bits. Things do go wrong in live music and the Avisons’ gracious handling of this was an example to us all.

Having had all this unknown British music, it must be said that the Avison Ensemble undermined their point somewhat by concluding with one of Handel’s magnificent Op.6 Concerti Grossi (no. 11 in A), a piece that outshone everything else on the programme for its grand structure and the complexity of the counterpoint. There was so much to enjoy in the playing too: the interplay between the soloists and the full group; the effortless fluidity of their tempi; Pavlo Beznosiuk and Caroline Balding’s dancing duet; and the light bounce of the staccato bowing by all the strings in the opening.

In the end though, the point that the Avison Ensemble really made with this concert is that modest music played with charm, affection and respect can be just as enjoyable as the great masterpieces. Handel may eclipse the others overall, but all are worthy of having their music played alongside his.