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Carlos DE SEIXAS (1704 - 1742): "Harpsichord Sonatas - 2"

Débora Halász, harpsichord

rec: Feb 5 - 7, 2008, Neumarkt, Reitstadel
Naxos - 8.570216 (© 2011) (73'38")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata No. 1 in C; Sonata No. 3 in C; Sonata No. 16 in c minor; Sonata No. 20 in D; Sonata No. 28 in d minor; Sonata No. 33 in E flat; Sonate No. 35 in e minor; Sonata No. 38 in F; Sonata No. 39 in F; Sonata No. 40 in F; Sonata No. 45 in G; Sonata No. 47 in G; Sonata No. 53 in g minor; Sonata No. 58 in A; Sonata No. 60 in A; Sonata No. 65 in a minor; Sonata No. 78 in B flat

In 1755 a disaster took place: Lisbon was largely destroyed by an earthquake. More than 60,000 people, about a quarter of the city's population, were killed, and the earthquake was felt as far away as Central Europe. It was also disastrous from a cultural point of view: the huge court library was destroyed and as a result a large part of Portugal's music history was wiped off the musical map. It could well be that a large part of the oeuvre of Carlos Seixas was also destroyed.

He was a musical prodigy who started his career at the age of just 14, when he succeeded his father as organist of Coimbra Cathedral. Two years later he moved to Lisbon where he became organist at Santa Igreja Patriarcal, which position he held until the end of his life. In addition Seixas taught the harpsichord at the royal court. Here he also met Domenico Scarlatti who entered its service in 1720. There has been much speculation about the latter's influence on Seixas. Parallels between the keyboard sonatas of the two masters are obvious, but who exactly influenced whom is hard to decide. As a matter of fact, Scarlatti refused to give his younger colleague keyboard lessons. He was so impressed by Seixas' skills that, according to a Portuguese dictionary of 1760, he said that it was rather Seixas who should give him keyboard lessons. He added that "the man is one of the greatest masters I have ever heard".

It is assumed Seixas composed about 700 sonatas, about 100 of which have survived, none of them in autograph. A number of sonatas are in one movement, like the sonatas by Scarlatti. However, there are also a number which comprise various movements, from two to four. The harmonic language is often daring and the virtuosity of the fast movements is astonishing and gives some idea of the composer's skills.

It is not easy to decide which instrument to choose for a performance of these sonatas. Musical life on the Iberian peninsula was under strong Italian influence, and the harpsichords which were in use were mostly of the Italian type. One cannot exclude that instruments from elsewhere in Europe were purchased for performances at the court. At least that was the case at the Spanish court in Madrid, where French harpsichords were present. The choice for this disc seems rather questionable, though. Débora Halász plays a copy by Hieronymus Hass - not Haas, as the reverse of the tray says - of 1734. It is a huge instrument with a 16' stop which Ms Halász uses consistently. She has a special liking for the virtuosic part of Seixas' oeuvre, and the 16' stop can come in very handy. It ill serves Seixas' music. We get a one-sided picture, and the consistent change of manuals causes much disquiet and tends to take attention away from the music.

It seems that Ms Halász changes the registration while playing. One wonders whether the instrument has knee levers. To the best of my knowledge Hass didn't produce such instruments. Another explanation could be that the instrument has three manuals. At least one such is known from Hass, but the 1734 Hass has only two. Could it be the result of recording technique? Either that or did she receive any assistance to change the registration while playing? I can't answer those questions.

As happy as I am that Seixas is receiving the attention he deserves, I am not convinced that this is the way ahead. A harpsichord with just one manual could well suffice to bring out all the qualities of this master's music.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Débora Halász

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