The Avison Ensemble - Corelli: Opus 1 & 3 - MusicWeb International
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.