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Antonio SOLER (1729 - 1783): Keyboard Music

[I] "Harpsichord Sonatas"
Anna-Maaria Oramo, harpsichord
rec: June 15 - 18, 2009, Karjaa, S:ta Katarina kyrkaa
Alba Records - ABCD 328 (© 2011) (66'00")
Liner-notes: E/Fi
Cover & track-list

Sonata in F (R 5); Sonata in F (R 6); Sonata in c minor (R 18); Sonata in d minor (R 24); Sonata in E (R 34); Sonata in D (R 37); Sonata in C (R 61); Sonata in F (R 69); Sonata in a minor (R 71); Sonata in D (R 84); Sonata in e minor (R 106); Sonata in F (R 107)

[II] "el Diablo vestido de fraile"
Diego Ares, harpsichord
rec: March 12 - 15, 2009, La Chaux-de-Fonds (CH), Salle de musique
Pan Classics - PC 10201 (© 2009) (61'15")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/S
Cover & track-list

Fandango in d minor (R 146); Preludio No. 1 in d minor; Preludio No. 5 in D; Preludio No. 7 in c minor; Sonata in g minor (JN 11); Sonata in b minor (R 10); Sonata in c minor (R 18); Sonata in D (R 37); Sonata in D (R 74); Sonata in g minor (R 81); Sonata in D (R 84); Sonata in F sharp (R 90); Sonata in D (R 92) (minuetto); Sonata in E flat (R 96) (pastoral); Sonata in c minor (R 100)

[III] "Soler"
Nicolau de Figueiredo, harpsichord
rec: Sept 2006, Moutiers au Perche (F)
Passacaille - 943 (© 2008) (51'22")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Fandango in d minor (R 146); Sonata in D flat; Sonata in d minor (R 15); Sonata in d minor (R 54); Sonata in D (R 84); Sonata in F sharp (R 85); Sonata in D (R 86); Sonata in D flat (R 88); Sonata in F sharp (R 90)

In the 18th century Spain was a centre of composing for the keyboard. The key figures were Domenico Scarlatti and Antonio Soler. The latter 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. Soler became acquainted with Domenico Scarlatti and received keyboard lessons from him. He also was well aware of the newest fashions in musical style as his compositional output shows. His music reflects a new musical aesthetic which has been characterised as "sensationalism" and was a break with the old rationalistic aesthetic which advocated that music is directed at reason.

The keyboard oeuvre has been recorded complete by Bob van Asperen (Astrée) and by Gilbert Rowland (Naxos), while Pieter-Jan Belder is recording his oeuvre for Brilliant Classics. These three discs offer selections; Anna-Maaria Oramo and Nicolau de Figueiredo play various sonatas in groups of pieces in the same key, a practice we know from the sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. In Diego Ares's recording some sonatas are preceded by a prelude in the same key.

Anna-Maaria Oramo has grouped the sonatas in such a way that there is a maximum of variety. She starts with the Sonata in C (R 61), a piece of a rather uncomplicated nature in a galant idiom with four movements. Here the right hand totally dominates, whereas the left hand is reduced to a accompanying role. That is a feature of many sonatas, although there are also sonatas in which the left hand has a more important and independent role to play.

Next follows the Sonata in F (R 69), a virtuosic showpiece in the style of Domenico Scarlatti. The Sonata in E (R 34) and the Sonata in F (R 6) are of the same character. The Sonata in c minor (R 18) is in just one movement but comprises various sections and is interrupted by pauses. I personally prefer the more introverted pieces, such as the Sonata in D (R 37), which is given a truly rhetorical performance. That is even more the case with the Sonata in d minor (R 24), which expresses a rather dark mood, and is given a compelling reading, thanks to the subtle use of rubato. The disc ends with another quietly forward-moving piece of a more contrapuntal character, with a relatively important role for the left hand, again superbly played by Anna-Maaria Oramo.

This is a beautifully structured programme which is performed very well. Ms Oramo uses a copy of a Pascal Taskin of 1769. That is probably the only aspect of this recording which is questionable. However, the issue of the choice of keyboard in the music by Scarlatti and Soler is a rather complicated issue, considering the presence of various harpsichords of different kinds at the Spanish court where they have worked.

The instrument which Diego Ares uses is much more problematic. It 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. It is true that during the later stage of Soler's life harpsichords with pedals were built, but it is anything but sure that he used them. Since most of his sonatas were never published it is impossible to say when they were written and whether he could have composed them with such instruments in mind.

Musically the frequent change of stops doesn't have any positive effect. The thundering sound which Ares produces in the Sonata in g minor (R 81) is not very pleasant to the ear. Significantly the Sonata in D (R 37), where he doesn't change stops, comes off much better. Here he also doesn't continuously mess around with the rhythm and the tempo. He does so, for instance, in the Sonata in c minor (R 18) and as a result the piece's rhythm is almost unrecognizable. Anna-Maaria Oramo's performance is much better; she also gives more weight to the pauses. I have no problems with performers taking some liberties, but there are limits, and Ares crosses them.

The disc by Nicolau de Figueiredo proves that it is perfectly possible to explore the features of Soler's keyboard music with more modest means. He uses the copy of an Italian harpsichord with just one manual. It seems very likely that most of Soler's sonatas were conceived for such an instrument. With this recording we are probably closer to his world than with the previous recordings.

He plays the sonatas in pairs. In the two sonatas in D flat and in F sharp major respectively one is an allegretto, the next an allegro. The two sonatas in D minor are both allegrettos; even so De Figueiredo is able to play them in such a way that there is enough contrast. The sonatas in D are an andantino and an allegro respectively. De Figueiredo shapes the sonatas beautifully, and even when he plays in a fast tempo, the phrasing and articulation is excellent. The sonatas are quite virtuosic, but De Figueiredo doesn't exploit that feature as a means in itself.

Diego Ares and Nicolau de Figueiredo both play the Fandango. I don't quite understand why this piece is so popular. In my view the sonatas are much better and far more interesting. Ares's performance is one of the worst I know: there is so much pushing and pulling and rhythmically the performance is a formless mess. De Figueiredo delivers a brilliant performance, but doesn't use it as a vehicle to show off. He structures it nicely, and makes the best of it.

If you want to become acquainted with Soler's keyboard works the disc of Nicolau de Figueiredo is the best choice. It is just a shame that the playing time is so short. Anna-Maaria Oramo also delivers good interpretations, and you won't regret it if you purchase her disc. Diego Ares should be avoided.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Diego Ares

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