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Recordings of the Month


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Symphonies 1, 2, 3

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Joseph NEBRA (1702-1768)
Sonata in F major [4:32]
Sonata in C minor [7:45]
Movement in C minor [0:54]
Sonata in F major [4:57]
Grave on the 8th tone [6:57]
Toccata in E minor [5:31]
Sonata in G major [5:15]
Toccata in D major [3:18]
Toccata in G major [5:25]
Toccata in G major [5:30]
Intiento in C major [3:02]
Grave in D minor (unfinished; completed by Moisès Fernández Via) [5:22]
Moisès Fernández Via (piano)
rec. December 2011, Mechanics Hall, Worcester
VERSO VRS 2118 [60:01]

Do you think that’s altogether wise, sir?’ is the question civil servants put to Ministers about to embark on a policy considered, by the service, to be foolhardy. If I’d been Verso I might have quietly suggested the same to Moisès Fernández Via, who opens his recital of the keyboard works of Joseph Nebra with one track containing 1:26 of silence. It’s separately tracked and headed ‘silencio’. Well, yes, one gets the picture. But why? Well, it’s to support, to buttress, to promote - take your pick - the conceit of Nebra’s ‘silence’ historically speaking. Thus, the minute and a half represents, if one is being charitable, a Cagean abstraction acknowledging but also paradoxically promoting Nebra’s musical restitution in this disc … or something like that.
This Nebra should not be confused with his nephew, Manuel Blasco de Nebra (1750-1784), who also wrote extensively for the keyboard and was also cast in the School of Scarlatti. But he is to be confused with José de Nebra, who is our Joseph Nebra in an alternative spelling of his name. He is a composer rather better known for his sacred choral music than keyboard works. Challenge Classics, for instance, has released an album of his sacred cantatas. Nebra was prominent at the Court in Madrid. A choral conductor, he was also harpsichord teacher to members of the Spanish royal family.
One problem with his works is that they have no tempo or dynamic markings. It’s also unclear whether Nebra played on a harpsichord himself, or a clavichord, or indeed something else. We know he was a distinguished organist. The notes state that Prince Gabriel, of the Royal Family, acquired a harpsichord in 1791 to study with Nebra. But that can’t be right as Nebra died in 1768. Via himself performs on a piano. None of the pieces are dated in the documentation.
In any case these keyboard works were largely ignored until the 1980s when, like a lot of his music, it was rediscovered. Fortunately it was Nebra’s pupils who copied these works and distributed them; one eminent pupil incidentally was Padre Antonio Soler, as was Nebra’s more famous nephew. The sonatas, toccatas and other movements are businesslike examples of post-Scarlattian writing. There is some variety of material but there is also programmatic manipulation to make them appear in a more dramatic light. The Movement in C minor, for examples, does indeed, as the notes say, start ‘attaca’ but it does so because Verso has allowed only a three-second gap from the previous, quieter C minor Sonata. I can’t help feeling that the pianist is trying to extrapolate a two-movement sonata out of these separate works. I appreciate that Via is trying to vest the works with variety and expressive potential, but the Grave on the 8th tone sounds a little ponderous and over-reverential and he tends to excuse in his notes what a sterner critic might term discursive or repetitive figuration. The Sonata in G major, which is apparently making its first appearance on disc (three of the pieces are so noted) is, however, a find. It has both Classical and Scarlattian features, and a ripely nagging left hand figure. None of these works, as noted, are dated but it suggests the stylistically transient position Nebra held at the time of their composition. The Toccata in G major sounds like a transcription of a violin and harpsichord work with delightful leaps, whereas the Intiento in C major - never before recorded - offers richer bass sonorities and a plausible organ imitation. Of the Grave in D minor only seven bars exist, so Via has extemporised the rest in a free improvisation lasting nearly five and a half minutes.
There are a few pieces here that do warrant further investigation, and others that are very much more run-of-the-mill. I am not unsympathetic to the special pleading undertaken on Nebra’s behalf, though it should have been couched in a less sententious way. Lots of composers, after all, have fallen between History’s floorboards.
Jonathan Woolf