Antonio Soler is a Spanish (Catalan) composer born (in 1729) a generation before the death (in 1757) of Domenico Scarlatti. It is with Scarlatti that Soler will be compared: the latter was native Spanish and also wrote many keyboard sonatas at the end of the Baroque period. Indeed some scholars claim that Soler studied with Scarlatti; he certainly claimed that he was a disciple of his and there are some similarities in their music. Unlike the Italian, though, Soler spent much of his life not at court but in the church, serving at the Escorial for much of his life; although Soler did teach the son of Carlos III.
There are a couple of dozen CDs devoted chiefly or exclusively to Soler's sonatas. The series by Gilbert Rowland on Naxos (Volume 1 is 8553462; Volume 13 is 8570292) stands out as the most authoritative and comprehensive survey. It should be considered carefully by anyone wanting to make a serious study of these varied, lively and inspiring pieces. Indeed, in comparisons with the music of Domenico Scarlatti, the former's greater adventurousness of form is often mentioned. Harmonically, too, Soler's are different, somewhat freer. Soler wrote a treatise, the "Llave de la modulación", which caused considerable controversy in the Spain of that time (1762) because of his advocacy of what sounded new and 'daring' chords. It's hard now to appreciate the extent to which this aspect of Soler's music must indeed have sounded so different. Unfortunately this CD doesn't really inspire in that respect. The structure, harmonies, textures, timbres are all there, to be sure. But the insistent rhythms are slack or absent. Maybe this is a deliberate attempt to differentiate Soler's approach from that of the arguably still equally flamboyant Scarlatti. Perhaps McIntosh is looking with more than a glance to the more staid and stately Classical styles.
This CD under has just over 50 minutes containing 11 of Soler's sonatas. Kathleen Mcintosh has only a couple of other recordings currently in the catalog – of Bach and Boismortier (both on Gasparo). Her playing is assured and steady, though it lacks the verve and spring which music like this cries out for. There can be no doubt that the playing here is conscious of the emotive color which infused Soler's writing as much as it did Scarlatti's. What little we know of Soler suggests that passion and emotive response were important to him in his music.
But consistent animation seems missing from this CD. It's not that McIntosh's playing is faulty or technically anything less than persuasive. Just a little pedestrian at times – listen to (the opening of) Sonata R48 in c minor [tr.7]. Soler surely intended majesty, not slow stepping; dignity, not a rather lacklustre progression. Life is missing; and – almost – any reason to be swept along with the logic of the music. The same in the gentler R18 [tr.8]: the attack and decay of the harpsichord are spot on. But the movement through the interesting keys near the opening is more perfunctory than it is exciting, or excited. We come away from listening to the CD feeling, Yes – we've heard the music impeccably played. But little of it remains with us as anything special; little of it is commended to us by the interpretative skills of McIntosh. It is barely made to seem worthy of returning to. Its merits and strengths have been laid out, not either teased out or pointed out. Still less shouted about.
The recording is adequate, if a little dry. There are two sides of apposite notes, which include details of McIntosh's instrument here – a John Philips from 1994 after an early C18th Dumont. The numbering system of the sonatas is that of Samuel Rubio, who catalogued Soler's sonatas a century or so ago; no accurate chronology is possible since no manuscripts are extant.
As an introduction to Soler's large output, then, this is something of a disappointment. The playing is all a little too studied, too deliberate. It has replaced flare with care and lost the joy and impact the pieces. A pity because the intentions of this project are all good. Soler does not get the exposure he clearly deserves. He stands all too often in Scarlatti's shadow; yet has – in fact – a vitality and vibrancy that make listening to him more of a delight than it is here. As a study of harpsichord playing, McIntosh's approach has good points. As something to sweep us along and allow us to revel in Soler's strengths, fewer.
Copyright © 2008, Mark Sealey