WILLIAM Boyce (1711-1779) is hardly better-known to most American listeners than Charles Avison (1709-1770), whose name is about as far as it could be from being a household word. Both of these 18th-century English composers are worth our attention, though, and both are surprisingly well represented among recent releases. The Musical Heritage Society brought out two discs of music by Boyce and one of Avison concertos only a month or two after RCA imported an Erato recording of more Avison from France.
Boyce, of course, is by no means unknown to record collectors. His eight little symphonies happen to fit snugly on a single LP, and there are three such discs listed in the current Schwann catalogue. Constant Lambert, the 20th-century English composer, conductor and author, arranged a ballet score called "The Prospect Before Us" from Boyce's music, and he also prepared performing editions of the eight symphonies.
Lambert rounded off the corners as shamelessly as Bruckner's well-meaning disciples did in editing that master's symphonies, but nowadays we hear the little Boyce symphonies, as we hear the big Bruckner symphonies, in the original versions (or quite reasonable approximations), which have much more bite, imagination and overall individuality.
The Musical Heritage Society has brought out a handsome 1979 CRD recording of the Boyce Symphonies, played by the Bournemouth Sinfonietta under Ronald Thomas (MHS 4730Y; cassette MHC 6730Z). The playing is splendid, more in the idiomatic-spontaneous style of Joerg Faerber's sturdy old Turnabout recording than the relatively self-concious (but still gorgeous) presentation by Neville Marriner on Argo. The recorded sound of the Heritage Society's rendition, too, is brighter than Turnabout's (plenty of drum presence in No. 5), if less sumptuous than the more expensive Argo. If you aren't acquainted with these delicious little symphonies by now, it's time to start enjoying them, and I think the new Heritage Society release may be the happiest way.
None of Boyce's other music is as well known as his symphonies, and the four works played by Cantilena under Adrian Shepherd (not the American chamber ensemble, but a chamber orchestra drawn from the Scottish National Orchestra) are likely to be new to most of us. They are the three concerti grossi and an Overture in F major (MHS 4729M; cassette MHC 6729T).
The concerti grossi, which Boyce didn't bother to publish, are neither as original nor as colorful as the symphonies, but they are attractive "second-class" Handel. The Overture, No. 5 in a published set of 12, originally introduced his 1762 New Year's Ode. It is a more extended work than most of the symphonies, the last of its three movements being an elaborate hornpipe interrupted by a slow middle section. The performances are fluent, but not as fastidious as they might have been in terms of style, the fast sections generally going better than the slow ones. Hardly an indispensable record, but pleasant enough, and very well recorded.
Avison's name is in Schwann, too. His set of 12 concerti grossi, based on Scarlatti harpsichord sonatas, has been available for some time in a three-disc Philips box recorded by Marriner. Now we have Nos. 4, 5, 8 and 11 of that set, in a new recording by the Jean-Francois Paillard Chamber Orchestra (Erato STU 71510; cassette MCE 71510), and a half-dozen of Avison's wholly original concertos performed by Thomas and his Bournemouth group on another MHS release (MHS 4731W; cassette MHC 6731X).
It may be that Avison (who wrote one of the first books on music criticism, by the way) got the idea of transcribing Scarlatti sonatas from his teacher Geminiani, who arranged the 12 violin sonatas of his teacher, Corelli, as concerti grossi. The tiny Scarlatti sonatas, each actually a single brief movement, could not be dealt with in quite the same way, but Avison assembled several to form a concerto, and he filled in additional movements or introductions with original music or material borrowed from other sources.
The single disc of four Scarlatti/Avison concertos will probably be enough for most listeners. They are handsome pieces, if not as fizzy as the "The Good-Humoured Ladies," the ballet score put together by Vincenzo Tomassini from the same source in our century.
The Avison concertos from Bournemouth (recorded by EMI) are identified as Nos. 1, 3, 8, 9, 10 and 12, the first two from his Op. 2 and the other four from a collection of 26 concertos he published in 1758. These are more concise and, to my ear, more stimulating than the ones based on Scarlatti. While they are near echoes of Vivaldi in No. 9, and of Handel or Corelli in the Op. 2 concertos, both the melodic inspiration and the harmonic treatment show a good deal of originality. The music exudes a robust, fresh spirit in Thomas' stylish, alert performances, and the recorded sound is splendid. Highly recommended.