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Antonio SOLER (1729-1783)
Vocal works in Latin
Dixit Dominus a 4 y ripieno (R 18) [12:30]
Magnificat a 8 (R 259) [09:27]
Incipit Lamentatio: Aleph. Quomodo sedet (R 94, 1-2) [15:35]
[Verso para el Alzar] Largo (R 47) [7:03]
Salve Regina a 5 (R 9) [9:38]
Miserere a 8 (R 295) [22:11]
Andrés Cea Galán (organ), La Grande Chapelle / Albert Recasens
rec. 2017, Capilla del Espiritu Santo of Cuenca Cathedral, Spain
Texts and translations included
LAUDA LAU018 [76:26]

Antonio Soler was one of the main composers in the mid-18th-century Spain. He is pretty well represented on disc, but mostly with music for keyboard. His sonatas, and in particular his Fandango, are part of the standard 18th-century repertoire for keyboard. His six concertos for two keyboards are also very well known, and available in quite a number of recordings. Things are very different in the vocal department. Many music lovers probably do not even know that Soler composed a substantial corpus of sacred works. Hardly any of that part of his output has received serious attention. I only could find a recording of a Magnificat and a disc with villancicos.

Soler worked for most of his life at the El Escorial Monastery. He was appointed organist in 1752, and in 1756 he became also maestro de capilla. This also brought him into contact with the court, as it stayed at the monastery during the autumn. This allowed him to take keyboard lessons from José de Nebra, the keyboard teacher of infante Gabriel, son of Charles III. For the latter, Soler also composed a number of keyboard sonatas.

The present disc is devoted to Soler’s vocal music; three of the pieces included here are first recordings. Soler’s vocal output, quite large, includes more than 300 works, either on Latin texts or on texts in the vernacular. The latter are mostly villancicos, part of a long and impressive tradition at the Iberian peninsula, which goes back to the Middle Ages. Albert Recasens has selected four pieces on Latin texts, written for liturgical use. Sacred music in 17th- and 18th-century Spain was mostly rather conservative. In some ways that also goes for Soler’s sacred works, but certain modern traits make his contributions an important link between the baroque period and the classical era.

If one looks at the five items on the present disc, several things need to be noted. First, Soler makes frequent use of the cori spezzati technique. Three of the five works are for eight voices in two choirs. Second, the string body is confined to violins, as was customary in Spanish churches at the time; violas or cellos are omitted, and only a double bass is used in the basso continuo. Moreover, Soler adds parts for wind instruments. The horns especially play a major role in some of the pieces recorded here. Sometimes also woodwind is used, either oboes or transverse flutes. These never play at the same time, because such instruments were usually played by the same musicians at the time. The third notable aspect is Soler’s creative use of harmony for expressive purposes.

The disc opens with a setting of Psalm 109 (110), Dixit Dominus, which dates from 1754. It is scored for four solo voices with additional ripienists in the tutti episodes. The horns play quite an important role. This Psalm includes some verses of a dramatic nature, which composers loved to explore. One of the most famous examples is the setting Handel composed during his stay in Italy. In comparison, Soler’s setting is more restrained, but even so it does not lack expression, and he does not miss the opportunity to depict the text, for instance in the bass solo "Dominus a dextris tuis". The plainchant melody turns up as cantus firmus in several verses. In this work Soler moves between homophony and counterpoint.

The Magnificat is for eight voices in two choirs. Again, Soler alternates between episodes for solo voices and tutti. It is a rather galant piece; this comes to the fore, for instance, in the character of the obbligato organ part. It is joined by the violins. Chromaticism is used in ‘Et misericordia eius’.

Since early times, the Lamentations of Jeremiah were set to music for the last three days before Easter. Here we hear the Lamentation I for Maundy Thursday, written in 1762 and set for eight voices. As was common practice in the 17th and 18th centuries, in comparable settings from Italy and France, the Hebrew letters preceding each section are set in the form of vocalises, here not for a solo voice, but for the entire ensemble. Soler pays much attention to an expression of the text, for instance through the use of homophony or solo voices. There are several passages with daring harmonic progressions. The instrumental scoring is for flutes and violins. The former play a notable role in accompanying the soprano in Magnavit Iuda.

Dissonances and chromaticism play a notable role in the setting of Salve Regina, one of the Marian antiphons, dating from 1753. It is mostly for soprano solo, but there are several passages in which she is joined by four additional voices, in the way of a cappella. The solo part is technically demanding and includes quite some dramatic traits.

The disc ends with one of nine settings of Miserere mei Deus, one of the penitential psalms sung during Lent. It is for eight voices, with an ensemble of violins, transverse flutes, oboes and horns. After an instrumental introduction, the work opens with a homophonic choral section. It is an alternatim setting; the even verses are sung in plainchant. The odd verses are set for one to four solo voices. Most of these sections are not too ambitious as far as the technical requirements are concerned. The exception is Auditui meo: “Make me hear the joy and gladness, that my broken bones may rejoice”. It is set for soprano solo, whose part reaches a high B. The work ends with a fugue for the tutti.

It brings to a close a most interesting and intriguing disc, which sheds light on a neglected part of the oeuvre of Antonio Soler. It gives the impression that his vocal oeuvre is of good quality, and is well worth being explored. It is to be hoped that more recordings of that part of his output will be performed and recorded. The performances are quite convincing. Albert Recasens avoids making too much of the music. He does not try to ‘pump it up’, as it were. This is relatively undramatic music, rather intimate than theatrical, probably reflecting the environment in which it was to be performed. The performers have grasped its character very well. The singers deliver fine performances. Some are not entirely free of vibrato, but it is hardly disturbing. The balance between the voices and the instruments is just right.

As we come to expect from Lauda production, the documentation is exemplary, and the liner notes are extensive and informative, in a good English translation. This is a production for curious minds, who like to expand their musical horizon.

Johan van Veen

Previous review: Brian Wilson

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