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Antonio SOLER (1729 - 1783): Concertos for two keyboards & Sonatas

[I] "Six Concerti for Two Keyboards"
Philippe LeRoy, Jory Vinikour, harpsichord
rec: April 2 - 5, 2015, Nicasio, CA, Skywalker Sound (Scoring Stage)
Delos - DE3491 (© 2016) (74'15")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

[II] "6 Concertos for 2 Harpsichords"
L'Entretien des clavecins
rec: Oct 10 - 12, 2015, Madrid, Diego de León
Brilliant Classics - 95327 (© 2016) (57'09")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Agustin Álvarez, Eusebio Fernández-Villacañas, harpsichord

[I, II] Concerto No. 1 in C; Concerto No. 2 in a minor; Concerto No. 3 in G; Concerto No. 4 in F; Concerto No. 5 in A; Concerto No. 6 in D

[III] "Sol de mi fortuna - Harpsichord Sonatas from the Morgan Library"
Diego Ares, harpsichord
rec: March 2015, Montreuil (F), Studio Sequenza
Harmonia mundi - HMC 902232 (© 2015) (73'08")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance] Antonio SOLER: Preludio No. 3 in C; Sonata No. 1 in C; Sonata No. 2 in C (R 7); Sonata No. 17 in a minor; Sonata No. 18 in a minor; Sonata No. 40 in d minor (R 114); Sonata No. 38 in d minor; Sonata No. 11 in B flat; Sonata No. 12 in B flat; Interludio; Sonata No. 7 in A; Sonata No. 8 in A; Preludio No. 4 in f minor; Sonata No. 13 in f minor; Sonata No. 14 in f minor; Sonata No. 42 in A flat; Sonata No. 42 in A flat; Diego ARES (*1983): Interludio; Antonio SOLER: Sonata No. 25 in b minor; Sonata No. 26 in b minor; Sonata Pastoral No. 30 in D; Sonata No. 31 in D; Pablo MINGUET Y YROL (fl 1733-1766): El enredo se deshace; Antonio SOLER: Sonata No. 15 in C; Sonata No. 16 in C; Canon a 4 'Viva la fama de esse Sol de mi fortuna'

Music for two keyboards is pretty rare, especially from the pre-romantic period. That is easy to explain. A substantial part of keyboard music was written for amateurs, and very few of them could afford to own more than one keyboard instrument. This kind of music was also not of interest for professionals because public concerts were rare before the mid-18th century. There was simply no demand for such music. Pieces for two keyboards were written for a specific reason, or, as in the case of Soler's Concertos, for two specific persons: the composer and his employer.

Antonio Soler entered the choir school at Montserrat at the age of six. It was then one of the best musical academies in Europe. He studied organ and composition and seems to have been a brilliant student. In the late 1750s he became chapel master at the Escorial, to the north-west of Madrid. This resulted in a close connection to the royal family which used to spend each autumn there. It allowed him to take lessons from Domenico Scarlatti who was in the service of the court.

In 1766 Soler was appointed music tutor to Crown Prince Don Gabriel de Borbón, who was very talented and collected a large number of keyboard instruments. One of these was a rare vis à vis organ which was housed in the basilica of El Escorial. "A specially made instrument featuring two consoles on opposite sides of a single cabinet containing the pipes and bellows, the organ's configuration enabled a pair of musicians to play simultaneously", Joseph Newsome explains in the booklet to the present recording. Obviously one is inclined to think that these concertos were written for this instrument, especially as their title refers to the organ: Seis Conciertos de dos Organos Obligados. There is one problem: the compass of the organ was largely identical with what was common at the time, but "Soler's writing covers an exceptionally wide range". However, the fact that the collection is dedicated to the Infante indicates that these concertos were written for performances by him and his teacher. It seems more likely that they were performed them on harpsichords. The range of these concertos, FF to G''', points in that direction: Domenico Scarlatti wrote some sonatas which explore this range and that indicates that the court owned at least one keyboard with this compass.

These concertos which probably date from around 1770, consist of two movements, except the second which has three. The first is in binary form and in a moderate tempo, mostly andante. The opening movement of the Concerto No. 6 is divided into four sections: allegro, andante, allegro and andante. The closing movement is always a minuet, not in the then common form of menuet and trio - except in the second concerto - but as a series of variations, in the tradition of the diferencias which goes back as far as Cabezón. The second movement of the Concerto No. 2 is an allegro in the form of a gigue. Dance rhythms frequently appear in these concertos which are written in the galant idiom.

The first part has been preserved in manuscript. It is the most difficult part and it is assumed that this was intended for the Infante who by all accounts was a brilliant player. The solo episodes allowed him to show his skills. The second part has come down to us in a copy. The dialogue between the two keyboards differs from one movement to the other. The menuet from the Concerto No. 1 is dominated by repetition: the statements of the first keyboard - sometimes only a couple of notes - are repeated by the second keyboard. In the allegro from the Concerto No. 2 we find pasages in unison. The opening cantabile from the Concerto No. 5 is a true dialogue in which the two keyboards have different material. In the ensuing menuet the first keyboard plays a variation which is then repeated by the second. The best-known concerto is the third, undoubtedly largely because the menuet with variations is the most technically brilliant movement of this set. In second place come the menuet and variations of the sixth concerto.

Considering that the Infante had a large collection of keyboard instruments it is not easy to decide which instruments suit these concertos best. Philippe LeRoy and Jory Vinikour play two harpsichords of the same builder, John Philips from Berkeley (California) which are based on Florentine originals. This is not the only plausible choice, but this recording indicates that they are probably musically the most satisfying option, also because there was little difference between Italian and Spanish harpsichords at the time. Pieces for two harpsichords are always in danger of being too noisy and short of transparency but that is avoided here, thanks to the choice of instruments - which have only one manual and only a few stops - and the excellent playing of these two harpsichordists. The good recording allows the listener to tell the two keyboards apart, but fortunately the division between left and right has not been exaggerated. Another nice feature of this recording is that all the repeats are observed which explains the long playing time. Other recordings I know - and there are quite a number in the catalogue - are mostly (much) shorter.

That is also the case with the recording which Brilliant Classics released. Its playing time indicates that Agustin Álvarez and Eusebio Fernández-Villacañas are much more economical in their treatment of repeats. Just one example: the minué from the Concerto No. 5 takes 5'39" in this recording, whereas LeRoy and Vinikour need 9'17". Overall these performances are rather disappointing. The playing is alright but here two double-manual French harpsichords are used, copies after Taskin (1769) and Donzelague (1711) respectively. It is impossible to say that this choice is historically wrong but from a musical perspective it is unsatisfying as here we have exactly what I just noticed: too much noise and a lack of transparency.

All in all, Philippe LeRoy and Jory Vinikour deliver the most satisfying interpretation of these concertos that I have heard.

The largest part of Soler's output consists of sonatas for one keyboard. They have been recorded complete by Bob van Asperen (Astrée), Gilbert Rowland (Naxos) and Pieter-Jan Belder (Brilliant Classics). The latter's recording is the latest; the fourth volume was released in 2011. That same year the Morgan Library in New York purchased a manuscript with no fewer than 43 sonatas by Soler; 29 of them were not previously known. Therefore this manuscript represents a major addition to the corpus of Soler's keyboard works. The manuscript is also interesting for three other reasons. First of all, the sonatas date from the 1750s: Soler is mentioned frai (brother) instead of padre as he was later known; this means that he was not ordained a priest yet. Secondly, the manuscript not only includes sonatas by Soler but also from the pen of Domenico Scarlatti which confirms that in his younger years Soler must have been in close contact with Scarlatti and may have been his pupil earlier than was previously thought. Thirdly, like Scarlatti Soler conceived his sonatas in pairs, but as he handed them over to his own pupils they were separated and for modern performers it was mostly impossible to establish which sonatas were originally intended as pairs. The copyist of the Morgan Library manuscript respected the groups of two. Sometimes a sonata known from another source is linked here to a previously unknown sonata. In other cases both sonatas were known but are included here as a pair.

The programme which Diego Ares has recorded has a kind of cyclic structure. It opens with a prelude and two sonatas in C major which are followed by sonata pairs in A minor, D minor/major and B flat major. After an interludio we get two sonatas in A major, three in F minor and to in A flat major. After another interludio Ares plays two sonatas in B minor, two in D major and two in C major. The idea to insert interludes is inspired by Soler's book Llave de la modulación which includes many examples of how to modulate from one key to another. Ares plays one of these and adds one of his own making. Before the two sonatas in C major at the end of the programme he includes another interludio, El enredo se deshace from Labyrintho de Labyrinthus by Pablo Minguet y Irol from around 1753. It is, according to Ares in his liner-notes, "an exercise in modulation by means of which the author claimed to teach the use of sharps, flats, double sharps and double flats. Although the doctrine greatly upset Soler, its harmonious and surprising twists and turns prompted me to include it. Minguet was the first to recognise that the important thing is how the music sounds, and not how it is written." One could argue that it is a bit odd to include a piece based on a concept that Soler rejected.

The disc ends with another curious piece, as a kind of encore: the Canon a 4 'Viva la fama de esse Sol de mi fortuna. "This puzzle, or riddle, was left us by Soler to resolve the Canon in four voices that he wrote to thank the Hieronymite community for its support and protection. It seemed to me that nothing could be more appropriate to conclude the recital than to play this canon." It is also a connection to the vocal music - among them many villancicos - which was composed by Soler and sadly is hardly known.

I have previously reviewed a disc with Soler sonatas by Diego Ares, and was rather critical about his performances and his choice of instrument. Basically nothing has changed in this regard. The harpsichord was built by Joel Katzman and presented as a copy of a harpsichord by Francisco Pérez Mirabal, built in Sevilla in 1734. However, it can't be considered a copy as Katzman has extended the compass in both directions. Moreover he added three pedals for changing stops. The result is an instrument which can't pretend to be historical. It is a new instrument, originating from the imagination of its builder. Diego Ares uses the pedals extensively. The Sonata in f minor [No. 14] is a pretty extreme example. It is true that later in Soler's career instruments with pedals were built in Spain but it is unlikely such instruments were known at the time Soler composed the sonatas in the Morgan Library manuscript. Nothing has changed in the interpretation either: Ares takes tempi and rhythm with a considerable amount of liberty. I have nothing against freedom in this department but he greatly exaggerates, and often the rhythms are becoming unrecognizable.

I just can't get used to this style of playing. It greatly annoyed me and it is unlikely I will ever listen to this disc again. I could not listen to the last two tracks as my copy was damaged. If you purchase this disc, take care.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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Jory Vinikour

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