Notes and Editorial Reviews
An auspicious opening to a complete Soler sonatas, vivacious and perceptive.
That fine Australian poet Peter Porter, resident in London for more than fifty years, is the author of many outstanding poems on musical subjects – poems such as ‘St Cecilia’s Day, 1710, in Memory of W.F. Bach’ and ‘Schumann Sings Schubert’, to name but two. In a fairly recent collection – Max is Missing (Picador, 2001) – he includes the poem ‘Antonio Soler’s Fingertips’. The poem is a dramatic monologue of sorts. Porter’s Soler talks of himself as a kind of "Keyboard Penelope":
Keyboard Penelope, I spin through gloom Of the Escorial such notes, each tune A fresh-cut flower in an airless room.
There’s a fine
evocation of some of the music’s associations and seeming images: Into the minor then – mad kings appear Beside their tombs: listen and you’ll hear The
roads of Spain, the mule and his muleteer, Whispering Italians with their loud fiati, Fresco-painters hoping for contratti, The immortality of dead Scarlatti.
The poem ends with a kind of confessio from the composer: I play all night and pray by rote at Prime. Christ on the Cross made blood and water rhyme. Up Calvary my harpsichord must climb.
Porter’s Soler prays by rote; the Jeronymite monk has perhaps put his faith in his music or, at any rate, his religious duties have taken second place to it. Quite what was true of the historical Soler is very hard to know. Outside the music itself it is hard to get an idea of the man’s personality. Contemporary or near contemporary comments on him have about them the air of the conventional, praising him for the virtues he was expected to have perhaps, rather than for what he really was. An obituary written by one of his fellow monks (on the day Soler died) praises him for his religious devotion and his compassion – but could hardly be expected to say anything else, after all. Soler, one suspects, did not want to reveal much of himself. From June 1765 he entered into correspondence with the great Padre Giovanni Battista Martini in Bologna, teacher, music historian, composer and collector; he sent scores and books to Martini; he asked for his advice and opinions; but he refused to send a portrait for Martini’s collection of composer portraits (some of which can now be seen in the fascinating Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica in Bologna). So far as I know, no authenticated portrait of Soler survives. It is to the music itself that we must turn, as Porter did, if we want an ‘image’ of Soler; and the image which that music encourages doesn’t perhaps sit easily with conventional ideas of a Jeronymite monk, committed to a particularly austere lifestyle. There is paradox and mystery in much of Soler’s music, and Pieter Belder communicates more than a little of such matters in these performances, the first two CDs of a projected complete set of the sonatas.
Naxos have not long finished issuing Gilbert Rowland’s generally reliable recording of the sonatas. At first encounter, and having only these two CDs to go on, Belder tackles the music with more passion, more fire, than Rowland often does. And, unlike some of the earlier volumes in the Naxos series, the recorded sound here is good and bright without excess. Rowland sounds just a little straight-laced when one makes direct comparisons of particular sonatas. I am glad to have a number of the CDs by Rowland on my shelves, but someone only now setting out to build a Soler collection would probably be best advised to go with Belder (assuming that later sets are as good as this first one). It is, though, worth saying that Rowland’s set has the advantage of better notes – by the soloist himself.
Belder has undertaken more than a few ‘completes’ for Brilliant (not least his Scarlatti recordings) both as a solo harpsichordist and as the leader and director of Musica Amphion. Most of these have been of consistently high quality. Just occasionally in the extensive Scarlatti series one sensed an air of the routine, of the necessary recording of a sonata which didn’t perhaps interest or excite Belder greatly – the problem that faces any ‘completist’. But on these first two discs of Soler there is absolutely no sense of the routine, Belder seeming thoroughly engaged with every note that he plays.
The tone is set by a blistering performance of the 450 bars of Soler’s Fandango (if it is his?), the ostinato bass worked up vivaciously, the rhythms incisive, the phrasing packed with energy. In all that follows Belder captures the spirit of the music in very convincing fashion, whether that be in the Largo cantabile of No.110 or the Prestissimo of No.81, the syncopations here being particularly effective.
Belder uses two instruments. On the first CD (from the Fandango to Sonnet 116, inclusive) he plays a 1999 copy by Cornelius Bom of a Ruckers instrument; on the second CD he plays a 2003 copy by Bom of an original by Giusti. Both instruments are impressive, that based on the model provided by the Luccan-born maker Giusti perhaps having the edge in delicacy and intimacy of sound, that copied from Ruckers packing the slightly greater punch.
Throughout Belder does full justice to the exuberance of Soler’s work as well as to its moments of sudden depth, there being abundant light and shade here. Like any good Spanish church of the period, Soler’s work has its equivalents both of rosy coloured cherubic angels and of saints lost to the world in meditation. And, for that matter, the odd mad king or muleteer. This first instalment makes one eager for later volumes in the series.
-- Glyn Pursglove, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Fandango for Keyboard by Antonio Soler
Pieter-Jan Belder (Harpsichord)
Written: 18th Century; Spain
Length: 12 Minutes 0 Secs.
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