SOLER, A: Keyboard Sonatas, Vol. 11 (Gilbert Rowland) (Naxos: 8.557640)
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Antonio Soler (1729-1783)
Sonatas for Harpsichord, Volume 11
Owing mainly to the tireless efforts of the late FatherSamuel Rubio and other editors in making many of hisworks available in print during the past forty years,Antonio Soler is now justly regarded as the mostimportant composer active in Spain during the secondhalf of the eighteenth century. He was born at Olot, in theprovince of Gerona in north-eastern Spain in 1729 andbaptised on 3rd December. At the age of six he enteredthe famous choir school at the Monastery of Montserratwhere he studied organ and composition. Before that heprobably received some tuition from his father, who wasa regimental bandsman. In 1744 he was appointedorganist at the cathedral in Seo de Urgel and was laterordained as subdeacon there.
At that time the Bishop of Urgel asked him if heknew of a boy who could play the organ and who wishedto take holy orders at the Escorial. Soler volunteeredhimself, saying that he very much wanted to take thevows and retreat from the world, and so on 25thSeptember 1752 he became a monk and entered thatfamous monastery near Madrid, built by Philip II. Healso became master of the Chapel there, probably in1757 following the death of his predecessor, Gabriel deMoratilla. Soler remained there until his death in 1783.
During the years 1752 to 1757 Soler is reputed tohave studied composition with Domenico Scarlatti andmany of Soler's sonatas show his influence to a markeddegree both in form and musical language. Despite hisprobable debt to Scarlatti, however, Soler's ownpersonality is very much in evidence in these works.
Many of these sonatas, like Scarlatti's, are singlemovements in binary form, that is, in two sections, eachof which is repeated, although Soler also composed alarge number of multi-movement sonatas. It is quitepossible that he was one of the copyists of some of themanuscript volumes of Scarlatti's sonatas, now housed inVenice and Parma.
Fortunately for posterity Soler's wish for a quiet lifedid not work out quite as he intended. Apart from hismonastic duties he was expected to train the choir,provide choral music for services, and provide the Royalfamily with secular and instrumental music during theirfrequent visits to the Escorial. The Spanish courtregularly spent the autumn there. Soler's achievement isalso astonishing when considering that much of his daywould have been taken up with prayer and the routine ofthe community. Periods of illness often prevented himfrom working. We learn from the anonymous obituary ofSoler, written by a fellow monk on the day he died, thathe survived on only four hours' sleep most nights, oftenretiring at midnight or one o'clock in the morning beforerising at four or five o'clock to say Mass. Mention is alsomade of his religious devotion, compassionate nature,scholarly interests and excessive candour. Soler died atthe Escorial on 20th December, 1783, from a graduallyworsening fever which he had caught the previousmonth. Soler's huge output runs to nearly 500 individualworks, and of his 150 keyboard sonatas, most wereintended for harpsichord.
A large number of Soler's instrumental works,including many of the sonatas, were composed for theInfante 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 elementsfeature prominently in his sonatas. Soler was muchinfluenced by the changing musical fashions of thesecond half of the eighteenth century and some of thesingle movement sonatas, as well as the four-movementworks dating from the late 1770s and early 1780sapproach the Viennese classical school in musicallanguage. There are a large number of slow movementsamongst the single-movement works which containsome of his most profound and memorable music.
Recent research has shown that, as in the case ofScarlatti, many of the single movement sonatas wereintended to be played as pairs, though this is not alwaysapparent in Rubio's edition, except in the case of RubioNos. 1-27, which follows the same numerical sequenceof the English edition. Many of Soler's sonatas make useof the full five-octave compass and were probablyoriginally played on a 63-key harpsichord with acompass from F to g˝ which Diego Fernandez built forthe Infante Don Gabriel in 1761.
The exuberant technically demanding virtuosoSonata in C major (without Rubio number) with its frequentwide skips and delightfully syncopated secondsubject comes from a manuscript in the Biblioteca deCataluña which appears to have been unknown to Rubioas it is not included in his catalogue. The infectious, rusticsounding dance-like 9/8 rhythms call to mind suchworks as Sonata No. 88 (recorded on Vol. 10) and theFinale of No. 93 (recorded on Vol. 3)The first member of the contrasted pair of sonatas,Sonatas Nos. 22/23 in D flat major, is one of Soler'smost extended slow movements. Although markedCantabile andantino this work's frequent use of dottedrhythms and imitations of bugle calls give it more of amartial character at times, and there are some remarkablemodulations as well as a profusion of contrastedideas. Sonata No. 23 is also rich in thematic material,and although in some ways a virtuoso piece with frequentwide skips in the left hand, plus a dramatic passageinvolving dotted rhythms in the right hand againstarpeggios in the left, it is the warm, heartfelt, at timesalmost Schubertian lyrical character of this work whichpredominates. Again, there are some surprising modulations.
The structure of Sonata No. 128 in E minor is mostunusual, even allowing for the fact that it is a kind ofRondo rather than a work cast in the composer's usualbinary form. There appear to be two contrasted Rondothemes being developed alternately here. The initialtheme, in triple time is lyrical and developed at considerablelength through various keys until a more livelysection in duple time starting in the tonic key and basedon a theme featuring repeated notes is reached. This isfollowed by a short recap of the original theme, beforethe repeated note idea is developed more extensively.
Variants of both ideas then continue to alternate.
Sonata No. 45 in C major is a sprightly, dance-likework containing some charming melodies seeminglyderived from Spanish folklore. There is some interestinguse of chromaticism and a passage towards the end ofeach half, featuring cross-accents where the right hand's3/8 pulse is perceived as 6/16. The 'Princesa deAsturias' to whom this sonata is dedicated is unlikely tohave been Maria Barbara since Soler would have beenbarely seventeen years old when she became Queen ofSpain in 1746.
Sonata No. 51 is a short, light-hearted piece havingthe character of a jig. The work also contains some wittysyncopations, and in the second half some teasing harmonicprogressionsSonata No. 65 in A minor is the third of a collectionof six three-movement sonatas dating from 1777, andthe only one of the set in a minor key. Both the lyrical,light-textured opening movement and the more forthright,driving second movement are very rustic in characterand contain thematic material suggestive ofSpanish folk-music. As with the other works in the setthe last movement is fugal, and this one, in 6/8 time, isnotable for its imitations in contrary motion, modulationsto distant keys, and masterly flow of counterpoint,almost worthy of J.S. Bach.
Sonata No. 127 in D major is a brief, simply constructedwork of much charm, and rather Scarlattian inidiom. Alberti figurations in the left hand feature prominentlyand there are one or two surprises in store such asthe unexpected phyrgian cadence at bars 21 and 22.
Sonata No. 62 in B flat major is the second of a pairof four movement sonatas dating from 1782. Like itspredecessor, the work opens with a Rond