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CD reviews

"Seixas & Soler: Harpsichord Sonatas"

Richard Lester, harpsichord

rec: 2004, Cirencester, Glou., Wistaria Lodge
Nimbus - NI 5836 (© 2008) (78'51")

Carlos SEIXAS (1704-1742): Sonata No 5 in d minor; Sonata No 6 in d minor; Sonata No 11 in A; Sonata No 19 in d minor; Sonata No 20 in d minor; Sonata No 23 in F; Sonata No 25 in g minor; Antonio SOLER (1729-1783): Sonata in D (R 15); Sonata in D (R 84); Sonata in d minor (R 117); Sonata in D flat major (R 88); Sonata in F (R 56); Sonata in f sharp minor (R 90); Sonata in G (R 45)

This disc brings together compositions by two of the most interesting composers of the Iberian peninsula. There is no connection between them: Soler was just 13 years old when Seixas died. Furthermore they were from different countries: Seixas from Portugal and Soler from Spain, and both never left their own country. But they have some things in common as we shall see.

José António Carlos de Seixas was born in 1704 in Coimbra as the son of Francisco Vaz, organist of the Cathedral. It is not known why he adopted the family name of Seixas. His father was his first teacher, and in 1718, when he died, Carlos succeeded him as organist of the Cathedral. He was just fourteen at the time, indicating that he was a child prodigy. Two years later he moved to Lisbon, where he became organist of the Santa Igreja Patriarcal, which position he held until the end of his life. In addition Seixas taught the harpsichord at the royal court in Lisbon. The contemporary chronicler Barbosa Machado reported that Seixas "came down with rhumatism, which became increasingly worse and turned into a malign fever". It led to his early death in 1742, just 38 years of age.

No autograph manuscripts have survived, probably due to the earthquake which hit Lisbon in 1755. All of his keyboard works are known from copies from the second half of the 18th century. In total 95 sonatas are considered authentic compositions by Seixas, a further 19 have been ascribed to him. The fact that so many copies have come down to us bears witness to his high reputation. No less a person than Domenico Scarlatti was a great admirer of Seixas. When Prince António told Scarlatti that he should give Seixas keyboard lessons, he refused. As a Portuguese dictionary of 1760 reports: "no sooner had [Scarlatti] seen him [Seixas] put his hands on the harpsichord than, recognising the giant by his fingerwork, he said to him: 'It is you who should be giving me lessons', and meeting his Royal Highness said to him, 'Your Highness sent me to examine, but let me tell you that the man is one of the greatest masters I have ever heard'".

It is often stated that Seixas was influenced by Scarlatti. But Macario Santiago Kastner, an expert on Iberian keyboard music, has emphasized that this influence should not be overrated. Like Scarlatti Seixas makes use of the binary form, but this was used long before Scarlatti. Often single movements from Seixas' sonatas are considerably longer than Scarlatti's sonatas, and some sonatas are in two or three movements. In a number of sonatas Seixas adds a minuet as the last movement which shows the influence of the French style. Harmonically Seixas' sonatas are often daring and individualistic. Striking examples of his harmonic language can be found in the Sonata No 19 in d minor and the last movement (allegro assai) from the Sonata No 11 in A. Seixas' sonatas also contain influences from folkloristic music.

Antonio Soler is also a remarkable composer. At the age of six he entered the choir school at Montserrat which was then one of the best musical academies in Europe. Soler 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. In this capacity he wasn't only expected to perform and compose sacred music, but secular works as well. Soler became acquainted with Domenico Scarlatti, like Seixas, but unlike the Portuguese master he was receiving keyboard lessons from Scarlatti. He also was well aware of the newest fashions in musical style as his compositional output shows.

Soler even caused a fiery debate in musical circles with his treatise Llave de la modulación which was published in 1762. In it Soler explained some rules permitting modulation from a fixed key to any other key, be it close or distant. In the controversy which followed the publication of this treatise conservatives imagined that music would sink into a kind of anarchy if apprentice composers followed Soler's advice. This debate reveals the shift in musical aesthetics, as the musicologist Albert Recasens explains: "Underlying this controversy is the confrontation between the old rationalistic aesthetic, which advocates that music is directed at reason, and the adherents of sensationalism, who accepted innovations in music so long as they provided auditory pleasure".

Soler's own music fits in with this new aesthetic ideal. The Fandango, nowadays by far his most popular piece, is a clear product of 'sensationalism'. It has puzzled modern musicologists who considered it rather inappropriate for a monk to create a piece like this, often characterised as 'sensual'. But this is the result of a misconception of the relationship between sacred and secular music in the 18th century. Composers didn't see a fundamental difference between them, and therefore it doesn't surprise that at the end of the manuscript Soler wrote: "laus Deo" (to the glory of God). Soler's sonatas contain many harmonic peculiarities and he liked to compose in remote keys like F sharp major and D flat major. Like Scarlatti and Seixas Soler makes use of the binary form. Some of his sonatas are also in two or three movements, but on this disc Richard Lester plays only single-movement sonatas.

The booklet indicates that this disc is a compilation suggesting two different discs devoted to each of the two composers have been released earlier. I haven't been able to find out whether that is indeed the case. It doesn't really matter, though: we should take this disc as it comes, and there is not much against presenting these two composers on one disc. As I have indicated above, with all the differences there are also a couple of things which link them together. Both composers are not rated enough: Seixas is not that well represented on disc, and fortunately most pieces played here are not featured on the few discs with Seixas' music which are available. It is a bit different in Soler's case: his complete keyboard works have been recorded by Bob van Asperen (Astrée) and selections from his sonatas are recorded by, for instance, Maggie Cole (1989, Virgin Classics).

A specific issue in the interpretation of Iberian keyboard music is the choice of instrument. Apart from the harpsichord the clavichord and the organ were common keyboard instruments in Spain. Maggie Cole even uses the then new fortepiano to play some of Soler's sonatas. Richard Lester plays one instrument, a copy of a harpsichord by José Joachim Antunes, built in 1785 in Portugal. This instrument is part of the Finchcocks collection of musical instruments in Kent. This instrument has two pedals, an attempt to keep up with the fortepiano - which was doomed to fail. The presence of pedals provides the interpreter with the possibility to make crescendi. Even in Soler's music this option seems rather dubious. In Soler's music I can't see anything which would require crescendi. Richard Lester's performances haven't convinced me of the opposite. From a historical perspective harpsichords with pedals were built during Soler's life, apparently also in Spain, but I haven't been able to find out whether his own use of such instruments is documented.

But my main problem is the interpretation. Lester's virtuosity and technical assurance are impressive enough, but there is a lack of differentation in touch, articulation and tempo. In particular in the scales and chord sequences we get an almost endless repetition of the same. Here his playing is often awkward and lacks fluency. The recording quality doesn't make things any better: the microphones have been too close to the instrument, and as it produces a pretty heavy sound anyway there is something aggressive in these performances which is becoming tiresome after a while.

I had preferred a more differentiated approach as we get in Soler's sonatas from Maggie Cole. Her tempi are better; some of Lester's tempi are unnaturally slow which make some scales a bit ponderous. The Fandango is much more captivating and imaginative in her interpretation than in Lester's. The latter writes: "There are points in the score where the writing is quite sparse and I have taken the liberty of adding a few 'Spanishisms' here and there. I have also truncated the work slightly where, to my mind, repetition becomes superfluous". There is no need for this - when a piece of music of this calibre is becoming a bit boring because of the repetitions it is usually the fault of the interpreter who fails to deal with these repetitions in a creative way. Simply cutting passages is the easiest way out.

The booklet says that Richard Lester has been acclaimed as "one of the greatest early music performers of this or any other time". I don't like that sort of exaggerated accolades. The proof of the pudding is in the eating: every time the interpreter - whatever his reputation may be - has to prove his credentials by his performances, and with his performances on this disc Richard Lester has failed to do so, at least to my ears.

It is hard to find reasons to recommend this disc. The only thing I can think of is the inclusion of sonatas by Carlos Seixas which fill a gap in the catalogue. Those who have a special interest in Iberian keyboard music may be tempted to purchase this disc for that reason. Others may look for other recordings: for Soler there are several to choose from, and Maggie Cole's is definitely a good choice. I am aware of two discs which are entirely devoted to Seixas: Robert Wooolley (Amon Ra) and Débora Halász (Naxos). I haven't been able to listen to them at length, but my impression from the tracks I have heard is favourable, and therefore I would recommend to look for them, although they play other sonatas than Richard Lester.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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