, January 2008
This disc is announced as the final instalment of Gilbert Rowland’s Naxos cycle of the complete Sonatas for Harpsichord by Padre Antonio Soler. I haven’t heard all of the earlier volumes, so I won’t attempt any kind of comprehensive statement about the project as a whole, but my impression, for what it’s worth, is that the series has got better and better as it has gone on. I agree with Patrick Waller (see his review of Volume 12) that the recorded sound has improved in later volumes; it was rather clattery and echoing on some of the early discs, but there are certainly no problems with the sound on this final volume. My sense is also that Gilbert Rowland has come to sound more and more at home with the music, his playing increasingly relaxed, his phrasing more flexible and his range of tonal colours more various. Whether or not these (remembered) impressions are correct, what I can say with some confidence is that this final disc is full of exciting and exhilarating music, played with considerable panache.
Spanish musical traditions are, of course, a central element in Soler’s harpsichord music; traditional Spanish dance rhythms are very clearly audible in the almost seven minutes of the central allegro (marked ‘assai spiritoso’) of Sonata 66, played here with sympathetic (and technically assured) flair; Spanish idioms are also very much to the fore in the opening Cantabile of Sonata 60. At times (as in Sonata 76) the influence of Domenico Scarlatti, Soler’s erstwhile teacher is evident. But Soler clearly listened rather more widely - at times the music prompts one to think of C.P.E. Bach.
Elsewhere, Soler’s fugues would satisfy all but the most pedantically rigorous of Germanic theorists. The fugal third movement of Sonata 66 is a delight, though some of its modulations might perhaps upset that hypothetical pedantic theorist; surely even he (or she?) would find little to complain about in the ‘intento a 4’ which closes Sonata 68, beautifully worked out and technically very accomplished.
But if Soler could be ‘correct’, he could also be somewhat shocking. The allegro in 6/8 of Sonata 60 is full of unexpected leaps and begins with some unconventional harmonies (“almost Bartókian” says Rowland in his characteristically useful booklet notes) that even now retain some of their power to startle.
Rowland responds to the range of this music and, on this disc at any rate, plays it with real innerness. At times here, as on some of the earlier volumes, I wondered whether one or two of the pieces might not work better still on the organ, but that is a quibble which shouldn’t detract from our gratitude to Rowland and to Naxos for the completion of this substantial project.
I believe that the only sonatas by Soler which were ever published during the Eighteenth Century were those which appeared as XXVII Sonatas para clave, published around 1796 by Richard Birchall of London. So there is an aptness in the choice of a British (Rowland was born in Glasgow) harpsichordist as the protagonist for this series.
In this final disc he plays a two manual instrument by Andrew Wooderson, made in 2005 and modelled on 1750 instrument from the Goermans workshop in Paris – and with its bright (but not excessively so) sound and clear articulation it enables Rowland to do something like full justice to this engaging music.