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ClassicsOnline Home » SOLER, A.: Sonatas for Harpsichord, Vol. 12
By William Yeoman
If Padre Antonio Soler isn’t quite the household name Domenico Scarlatti is, it ought to be. His music displays the same sunny combination of Italian and Spanish idioms, as well as the same sparkling wit and vivacity combined with superb craftsmanship and an underlying seriousness—all of which is brilliantly captured by harpsichordist Gilbert Rowland on this latest instalment in his traversal of Soler’s complete harpsichord sonatas. As if Soler (1729-1783) wasn’t kept busy enough at the Spanish monastery of el Escorial, training the choir, composing and attending to his religious duties, he also has to cater for the more secular musical needs of Carlos III. It’s believed that many of Soler’s 150 keyboard sonatas were written for Carlos’s son, the infante Don Gabriel. Perhaps it’s a good thing Soler could get by on only four hours sleep a night. Rowland’s fluency in this music is by now self-evident. Listen to the relaxed leaps, overlapping scales and drawn-out trills in the opening C major sonata; or the elegant Cantabile of the F major, all aflutter with rich ornamentation; or the final Allegro of the F-sharp major with which the disc ends. Rowland’s agile bass octaves adding further impetus to a movement already bristling with joyful energy. Throughout the disc, Soler’s striking guitar-like strum effects are also vividly realized. This is keyboard playing of the highest order—at any price.
Padre Antonio Soler (1729–1783)
Sonatas for Harpsichord Vol. 12
Owing mainly to the tireless efforts of the late Father Samuel Rubio and other editors in making many of his works available in print during the past forty years, Antonio Soler is now justly regarded as the most important composer active in Spain during the second half of the eighteenth century. He was born at Olot, in the province of Gerona in north-eastern Spain in 1729 and baptised on 3 December. At the age of six he entered the famous choir school at the Monastery of Montserrat where he studied organ and composition. Before that he probably received some tuition from his father, who was a regimental bandsman. In 1744 he was appointed organist at the cathedral in Seo de Urgel and was later ordained as subdeacon there.
At that time the Bishop of Urgel asked him if he knew of a boy who could play the organ and who wished to take holy orders at the Escorial. Soler volunteered himself, saying that he very much wanted to take the vows and retreat from the world, and so on 25 September 1752 he became a monk and entered that famous monastery near Madrid, built by Philip II. He also became master of the Chapel there, probably in 1757 following the death of his predecessor, Gabriel de Moratilla. Soler remained there until his death in 1783.
During the years 1752 to 1757 Soler is reputed to have studied composition with Domenico Scarlatti and many of Soler's sonatas show his influence to a marked degree both in form and musical language. Despite his probable debt to Scarlatti, however, Soler's own personality is very much in evidence in these works. Many of these sonatas, like Scarlatti's, are single movements in binary form, that is, in two sections, each of which is repeated, although Soler also composed a large number of multi-movement sonatas. It is quite possible that he was one of the copyists of some of the manuscript volumes of Scarlatti's sonatas, now housed in Venice and Parma.
Fortunately for posterity Soler's wish for a quiet life did not work out quite as he intended. Apart from his monastic duties he was expected to train the choir, provide choral music for services, and provide the Royal family with secular and instrumental music during their frequent visits to the Escorial. The Spanish court regularly spent the autumn there. Soler's achievement is also astonishing when considering that much of his day would have been taken up with prayer and the routine of the community. Periods of illness often prevented him from working. We learn from the anonymous obituary of Soler, written by a fellow monk on the day he died, that he survived on only four hours' sleep most nights, often retiring at midnight or one o'clock in the morning before rising at four or five o'clock to say Mass. Mention is also made of his religious devotion, compassionate nature, scholarly interests and excessive candour. Soler died at the Escorial on 20 December 1783, from a gradually worsening fever which he had caught the previous month. Soler's huge output runs to nearly 500 individual works, and of his 150 keyboard sonatas, most were intended for harpsichord.
A large number of Soler's instrumental works, including many of the sonatas, were composed for the Infante Don Gabriel (1752-1788), son of Carlos III, whom Soler served as music master from the mid-1760s. As with Scarlatti, Spanish folk-song and dance elements feature prominently in his sonatas. Soler was much influenced by the changing musical fashions of the second half of the eighteenth century and some of the single movement sonatas, as well as the four-movement works dating from the late 1770s and early 1780s approach the Viennese classical school in musical language. There are a large number of slow movements amongst the single-movement works which contain some of his most profound and memorable music.
Recent research has shown that, as in the case of Scarlatti, many of the single movement sonatas were intended to be played as pairs, though this is not always apparent in Rubio's edition, except in the case of Rubio Nos. 1-27, which follows the same numerical sequence of the English edition. Many of Soler's sonatas make use of the full five-octave compass and were probably originally played on a 63-key harpsichord with a compass from F to g˝ which Diego Fernández built for the Infante Don Gabriel in 1761.
The Sonata in C major (without Rubio number) is a full textured, festive sounding work and comes from a manuscript in the Biblioteca de Cataluña which appears to have been unknown to Rubio, as it is not included in his edition of the sonatas. Textures are often enriched by the use of octaves in the left hand, and there are some characteristic wide skips. The use of cross accents (suddenly giving an aural impression of 6/8 in a piece written in 3/4 time) just after the start of the second half, produce a feeling of local colour suggestive of popular Spanish folk-music.
Sonata No. 130 in G minor is a profound and intense slow movement, aptly marked Cantabile featuring the use of guitar strumming chords in the left hand accompaniment, and in the second half some striking modulations, as well as harmonies which are lush sounding even by Soler's standards.
Sonata No. 121 in C major, which begins in a typically style galant manner is charmingly rustic in character. There are many lyrical passages in the right hand accompanied by broken chord figurations in the left.
Sonata No. 63 in F major is the first of a set of six sonatas each containing three movements and dating from 1777. The work begins with a leisurely slow movement of Mozartian grace and charm with some modulations to distant keys in the second section. This is followed by a vigorous, busy Allegro with many broken octave passages suggestive of orchestral textures. Frequent use of trills add to the virtuoso technical demands of this movement. As with the other sonatas in this collection the work ends with a fugue, this one consisting of four voices, and is characterized by an exciting rhythmic drive which constantly propels the music forward. As with most of Soler's fugues this one finds itself in some remarkably distant keys at times, and striking use is made of augmented chords halfway through the piece.
Sonata No. 67 in D major is a three-movement work and comes from the same set of sonatas as No. 63, the fifth work in that collection. The work opens with a lyrical, sparsely textured Andante con moto of naive charm, and containing a wealth of clearly defined attractive themes. This is followed by an exuberant, rustic dance movement in 6/8 time, similar in character to the Finale of Sonata No. 92 (Soler Vol. 2, Naxos 8.553463). There is much drive and some interesting use of suspensions in each half. Each section closes with a brilliant display of semiquavers in the right hand. The last movement begins as a four part fugue but becomes more free in its treatment of the subject as the movement progresses. The textures and figurations suddenly become more busy and less vocal. The fugue subject is accompanied by alberti bass figurations towards the end and the movement concludes in a suitably virtuoso fashion.
Sonata No. 125 in C minor is a lively and charming dance movement in 3/8 time that is very close to Scarlatti in idiom. There are many enchanting melodies contained in this little work seemingly derived from popular Spanish folk-music, and the sonata ends, rather suddenly, with the unashamed use of rasgueado technique typical of flamenco guitar-strumming.
Sonata No. 44 in C major is another lyrical work, rich in melodic invention. There are many repeated chords in the left hand in the manner of Scarlatti, indicative of Spanish guitar-strumming. Soler's fondness for augmented sixth chords can be heard in the second half.
Sonata No. 107 in F major is another lively dance movement which is very Spanish in idiom, both rhythmically and melodically. Typical features are the use of short repeated phrases to carry the music forward, and sudden changes from major to minor.
Sonata No. 79 in F sharp major is a fine two-movement sonata in what was for the eighteenth century a very remote key, beginning with a lyrical cantabile slow movement which is very free in its treatment of modulation. Soler's fondness for dotted rhythms can be heard here. This is followed by a vigorous, relentlessly driving movement in 3/4 time. The frequent use of powerful octaves in the left hand add to the richness of texture.
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SOLER, A.: Sonatas for Harpsichord, Vol. 12