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Antonio SOLER (1729-1783)
Harpsichord Sonatas. Volume 9: No. 86 in D major; No. 84 in D major; No. 72 in F minor; No. 132 in Bb major; No. 119 in Bb major; No. 24 in D minor; No. 25 in D minor No. 12 in G major; No. 13 in G major and No. 14 in G major; No. 99 in C major Op. 8 No. 3.
Gilbert Rowland (harpsichord)
Recorded at Epsom College Concert Hall, Surrey, July 2000
NAXOS 8.555032 [72.41]

It is extraordinary and certainly very interesting that Naxos are running this complete series of Soler’s entirely unknown sonatas recorded by a single but very well known harpsichordist at the same time as they have asked a variety of performers to record a series of Scarlatti sonatas for the piano. Why do I connect them?

Well, Soler was probably a pupil or certainly a close friend and associate of Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757). The latter worked almost all of his life in Spain. Soler was a Spanish priest, and virtuoso performer … an interesting combination. How he found time to practice I’m not sure considering all of his priestly duties … and he was apparently very devout. Still, almost all of his output is secular, i.e. for the harpsichord alone.

Gilbert Rowland has written some fascinating notes to accompany this release. In discussing Soler’s style he comments: "Despite his probable debt to Scarlatti many of Soler’s sonatas show his own personality very much in evidence". He adds "but also Scarlatti’s influence is found to a marked degree both in form and in language". He does not however explain exactly where Soler’s own musical character can be found and I have to say that for me Soler is practically a clone of his elder and none the worse for that. In fact later in the notes Rowland writes "As with Scarlatti, Spanish folk-song and dance elements feature prominently". He also points out that "Soler was much influenced by the changing musical fashions of the second half of the 18th Century and some of the single movement sonatas, as well as the four movement ones" indicate the "approach of the Viennese classical school".

These sonatas have been very carefully chosen so that they work in contrasting or complementary pairs; for example the first two in D major. Most sonatas are single movement pieces as are Scarlatti’s but there is one group of three which work well together: numbers 12, 13 and 14, all in G major. The last work on the disc, however, is a definite four movement, twenty minute sonata which includes a Minuet and an Allegro finale. This appears to date from the last year of Soler’s life. One is immediately struck by the ‘galante style’ of the Moderato opening movement. However the work remains what it actually is, a mediocre piece in the classical style by a contemporary of Mozart. Whereas the earlier single movement works have an inner vitality and originality which is fascinating; it is these to which I shall return.

The particular pieces here which stand out for me are: the D major sonata, No. 84, with its lively Spanish rhythms, echt Scarlatti; the F minor Sonata, No. 72, with its "relentless drive and vitality" despite its seriousness; and No. 13 in G major with its "rich textured virtuosity" and pompous fanfare opening.

I have to add that I do not like the recorded sound of this harpsichord. It is far too brash and bright even if the treble is turned down. In fairness to Naxos the instrument itself is probably to blame. It is a two manual job by Andrew Wooderson (1998). Couldn’t Gilbert Rowland have varied the sounds more, especially on a two manual instrument? The above-mentioned D major sonata fares particularly badly on this account. I wonder too about the venue, a new one for me, at Epsom College. Were there any soft furnishings to soak up the brittle sound of the harpsichord?

If you are collecting Soler’s sonatas then nothing will get in your way. For my part, I might audition another volume before I decide whether to devote shelf-space to this series.

Gary Higginson

see also review by Michael Cookson

Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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