October 15, 2015
(++++) KNOWING THE UNKNOWN
Soler: Harpsichord Sonatas Nos. 1-120 (Padre Samuel Rubio edition). Barbara Harbach, harpsichord. MSR Classics. $149.95 (14 CDs).
No one knows what Padre Antonio Francisco Javier José Soler Ramos (1729-1783) looked like: he lived in religious seclusion essentially throughout his life, and no portraits of him are known to exist. No one knows how many compositions he wrote: there appear to have been around 500, but there are so many missing manuscripts, conflicting notations and repetitions among his works, or those attributed to him, that there is no consensus. No one knows how many keyboard sonatas he produced: there were probably about 130, but again, there is simply no way to sort through all the uncertainties and inconsistencies and find out. No one knows what instrument or instruments he wrote his keyboard sonatas for: certainly the harpsichord makes sense for most of them, but some movements’ designs seem to point to the fortepiano or even the organ. No one knows whether he studied with Domenico Scarlatti, to whom he makes reference in a treatise and whose work Soler’s sometimes, but by no means always, seems to resemble. No one even knows whether to deem Soler a composer of the late Baroque or early Classical period, because his sonatas straddle the eras in so many ways that it is impossible to assign him to just one time – assuming the sonatas attributed to him are in fact by him.
With so much unknown, it is a relief to point out some things that are known, of which the primary one is that Soler’s keyboard sonatas are absolutely wonderful pieces of music. By turns balanced and poised, short and long, with developed themes or straightforwardly repeated ones, with unusual or typical modulations, in single movements or multiple ones, written simply or requiring considerable virtuosity, these are gems of music of their time – to whatever time they are considered to belong. Individual ones are occasionally heard in recital, and groups are recorded once in a while, but the chance to listen to a more-or-less-complete set of the sonatas is a rare one and, when the works are as well-played as they are by Barbara Harbach, is not to be missed.
This MSR Classics release is a joy from start to finish. There are several editions of Soler’s sonatas and several ways to present them. Harbach, who is a composer of some finesse as well as a performer of considerable skill, chooses the edition of Padre Samuel Rubio and presents the 120 sonatas in that edition in numerical order. This is as good an approach as any: some sonatas are surely left out, some of the included ones repeat within others, and the organization of Rubio’s edition is not immediately apparent, since none of Soler’s sonatas can be dated precisely, but Harbach’s cycle gives a pleasant orderliness to the Soler sonatas that they do not otherwise possess.
Indeed, because the sonatas in the Rubio edition (and other editions) are arranged in somewhat helter-skelter fashion, the decision to present them in numerical order gives listeners a chance to hear just how wide a variety of sounds and techniques Soler’s sonatas offer. For instance, a graceful and decidedly old-fashioned three-and-a-half-minute sonata such as No. 37, which sounds as if may be the earliest or at any rate one of the earliest of all (as Haydn’s Symphony No. 37 may be his earliest, despite the number), is followed within a few minutes by No. 40 in G, a seven-minute piece whose sound and structure appear to come much more clearly from the Classical time period. Elsewhere, sonatas may be presented as pairs, providing back-to-back examples of differing forms of Soler’s creativity – as, for instance, in the two E-flat sonatas Nos. 41 and 42. In other cases, a single-movement binary-form sonata (these Scarlatti-like constructions are the most common in Soler’s work), such as No. 45 in G, presents a pleasant surprise and a different way of looking at and listening to the same material when it reappears later as part of a multi-movement work – in this case, as a portion of the third movement of No. 94.
Harbach performs the Soler sonatas on a modern harpsichord modeled after an 18th-century French one, and the instrument suits her admirably careful attention to detail and extreme care in phrasing very well indeed. Once in a while, it would be nice to hear her cut loose a bit more, but Harbach’s primary concerns are careful pacing and close attention to ornamentation (including its use during repeated sections, as is appropriate for the time period); and it has to be said that she makes some of the sonatas exceptionally exciting (the flamenco-style No. 48, for example, is splendid, and the second movement of No. 67 is downright perky). The harpsichord sound is big and close – the instrument seems to fill the whole sonic environment – and while this makes the individual works highly effective and very involving, it also makes them difficult to listen to in long stretches. Indeed, trying to consume this entire set in just a few listening sessions would be a mistake on multiple levels, not the least of which would be a kind of aural exhaustion: the sonatas run a total of nearly 17½ hours. A full appreciation of Soler, and of Harbach’s exceptionally perceptive approach to his music, really requires listening to only a bit of this music at any one time. This will also help with yet another unknown, that being what Soler meant by the word “sonata.” There is little in these pieces resembling a sonata as we now understand the term; they are certainly not in what we know as “sonata form.” Many, perhaps most, were written for instructional purposes: one thing we do know about Soler is that he was harpsichord tutor of the Infante Don Gabriel. But like everything else in these works, this information helps in understanding some elements (such as some of the sonatas’ technical requirements) without clarifying others (such as their expressive elements).
The reality is that much will remain unknown about Soler and his music: sources of extensive information on someone who lived virtually his entire life in monastic seclusion simply do not exist. In a way, though, this lack of information is liberating, since it requires performers and listeners alike to deal with Soler’s works without the distraction of biography, without considering in any way the sense in which they may have reflected his life or his everyday secular concerns. One of the best things in Harbach’s Soler cycle – among many – is the ease with which her meticulous playing makes it possible to immerse oneself in Soler’s music, to absorb it and be absorbed into it, to hear its flow and accept its beauties at face value, and thus to be all the more impressed when the composer throws in something unexpected, such as minuets in contrasting tempos or “intento” movements that are something like free-form fugues (theoretically a contradiction in terms, but not so here). This is an unusual and most welcome set, packed with pieces that directly reflect Spain (such as Nos. 15 and 32), ones in unusual keys (Nos. 22, 23, 88 and 110 in D-flat), ones requiring impressive cross-hand playing (Nos. 10 and 108), and ones packed with grace and beauty and delightful style – whatever style one chooses to call it. Harbach is a wonderful advocate for this music, and the music itself is wonderful on so many levels and in so many ways that this Soler collection is flat-out treasurable. It is safe to predict that it will amply repay many listenings over many years.