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Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, January 2009

Domenico Scarlatti, mestre du capella to the Infanta Maria Barbara, accompanied his pupil when she moved temporarily to Lisbon in 1723. While there, the Portuguese Infanta Don Antonio supposedly sent a promising young composer, Carlos de Seixas, to study with Scarlatti, who was 19 years his senior. The story goes that the latter reported back to Don Antonio, stating Seixas was one of the best musicians he had ever heard, and scarcely in need of further instruction.

It’s a nice tale, and possibly even true. I for one would have liked to witness a first meeting between two such highly talented composers whose keyboard work reflects considerable similarities, despite their differences of age and upbringing. The issue of influence and the direction it ran has never been settled, and is likely never to be, given that Seixas died young, and his original manuscripts perished during the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Out of some 700 “keyboard toccatas” he is known to have composed, roughly 95 survive, of which 80 were collected, edited, and published by the late Macario Santiago Kastner. Although it’s never made clear in the liner notes to this release, presumably that edition is the one used by Debora Halász in what has been announced as a complete traversal. This leaves approximately 15 pieces unaccounted for, if my arithmetical skills are still functioning. Kastner presumably found them of dubious authenticity, or they appeared after his death. I’d personally like to hear them regardless, whether authentic or not, as there is an inordinate amount of formerly attributed music that is quite good and never gets recorded. Not that I’m about to turn up my nose at any attempt to issue multiple volumes of Seixas, whose treatment thus far on CD has been sporadic at best.

The last release of Seixas that I reviewed in these pages appeared roughly a year ago, and featured Christian Brembeck (Musicaphon M 55867). There’s little to choose, technically speaking, between Brembeck and Halász Both have fingers to spare, and easily manage the more virtuosic pieces without any loss of flow or control. Sound quality on both albums, too, is excellent, and to make matters more confusing, the harpsichordists adapt similar, judiciously chosen tempos in the few works they both perform.

However, there are significant differences between the two, and unfortunately they don’t make choosing a single disc any easier. Halasz, for one, employs grace notes with frequency and usually in a way that seems both natural and appropriate to the music. She is willing to stretch the beat a bit even in rhythmically driven passages, though, when it can have a detrimental result. As an example, part of the powerful effect of the Sonata No. 50 in G Minor derives from its headlong impetus and strong first beat. This is impeded when the beat in question is lengthened and weakened, as Halász routinely does. When the harpsichordist resorts to this, he/she invariably draws attention to the strategy, interfering with our enjoyment of the music.

Brembeck is more straightforward. His beat is firm, and when he uses ornamentation it appears within existing rhythms. He also offers a pair of instruments, a rich sounding modem model based on a 1746 Blanchet, and a sweeter one that imitates characteristics of Merzdorf harpsichords of the early 1700s. Halász offers one harpsichord, a copy of a 1734 Haas, though on evidence of this album, it has a pair of manuals that are used with discretion.

But on the aforementioned Sonata No. 50, Brembeck only repeats the first section, and gives the second section a single performance. This he does more often than not, whereas Halász plays both sections twice—relatively standard practice today. In the Sonata No. lO in C Major, the second section is of appreciable length, and the difference between the two recorded versions is, as well: 13:06 for Halász, 8:13 for Brembeck. The shape of the result is substantially different, depending upon which version you hear.

This puts a different complexion upon matters, and inclines me slightly towards Halász also holds the trump card in the form of a complete, forthcoming recorded edition. But you really can’t go wrong with either of these two releases that, in their differing approaches to this music, offer a selection of fine music discerningly performed.

Bert Bailey
Classical Net, January 2009

Until recently, a search for keyboard music by Portugal’s Carlos de Seixas (1704–1742) would turn up next to nothing: a couple of deleted items and maybe a few sonatas in anthologies featuring others by Scarlatti or perhaps Antonio Soler. A sense of his music would be hard to gather up, and it would require some expense.

This CD changes all that. It also makes one wish that some Lisbon dig would unearth more of the nearly 700 Seixas pieces for harpsichord that were supposedly lost during Lisbon’s great 1755 earthquake, a few years after his death, especially if some of it matched the level of these sonatas. Naxos reports plans to release those that have survived: the liner notes mention a collection of eighty—thirteen of which appear here, played very ably by Brazilian virtuoso Débora Halász. At least five more Seixas CDs should gradually be released, which is good news indeed for baroque music fans.

Seixas was the cathedral organist at his native Coimbra from the age of fourteen, but at sixteen he was appointed Vice Master organist in Lisbon’s Royal Chapel—the Chapel Master being none other than Domenico Scarlatti. During Scarlatti’s five years in Portugal, he taught and was said to admire young Carlos, who eventually replaced him as Chapel Master and harpsichord teacher at Lisbon’s royal court. A Portuguese dictionary from 1760 reports that, upon first witnessing “Seixas” playing, Scarlatti said to the youth that he ought to teach him, Scarlatti, rather than the other way around, as the Portuguese monarch had commanded the Italian master. Seixas died early, at 38, but was already regarded as the highest-ranking Portuguese musician of his time. Some mutual influence in their keyboard music seems likely, although the sonata form was developed further by the longer-lived Scarlatti.

“Seixas” works often feature a relatively simple left-hand part while the melodic structures for the right hand are elaborated and developed through variations. Most sonatas on this disc are in two movements, some are in three, and a few are in a single movement; a one to three-minute duration is typical, two movements last less than a minute, and just one is 13 minutes long.

The soloist displays the harpsichord’s expressive variety, as well as her own considerable talents, through a mix that, for instance, has a graceful piece requiring a toy piano-like sound, such as the Sonata 24’s closing movement, followed immediately, and every bit as adroitly, with something calling for an aggressive clangour—in this case, the intricate and challenging 27th Sonata. The differentiation in tempo, touch and articulation of “Seixas” music make for a remarkably wide expressive range that can comprise the poignant Largo to Sonata #18, which is full of sadness or a mature resignation, and the exuberant Allegro that follows, which is suggestive of the most youthful restlessness. This range includes the 24th Sonata’s heaven-storming opening, the brash, heroic tonalities of Nos 19 and 44, graceful sweetness in Sonata 37, and wistful lyricism in the Moderato of Sonata 43. This last piece inhabits a sound-world akin to Antonio Soler’s sublime Fandango, although it is clearly nowhere as lengthy nor weighty in intent. Also worth noting is the engaging and ambitious Sonata No. 57, for its harmonically-rich and grandiloquent opening movement, followed by a delicate, contemplative middle, and closing with a fast movement of unexpected extroversion.

It may be something of a fool’s errand to try to sit through 71 minutes of any solo instrument that is not “live,” no matter how delightful each piece; this certainly applies to baroque harpsichord music—unless one is a die-hard keyboard head-banger or in a very special mood. Still, the three recent Naxos releases of Buxtehude’s trio sonatas show how enjoyable well-played baroque chamber recitals in historically-informed performances can be, and that they amply reward repeated listening. Naxos has also been gradually releasing Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas in piano versions that feature a different artist per CD: this will be the first complete traversal since Scott Ross“ survey for Erato, and has already yielded several successes.

With this release Naxos has clearly issued the best single CD to gain the acquaintance of Portugal’s underappreciated late baroque musical genius.

So bravo yet again!…

Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, January 2007

David Blomenberg
MusicWeb International, September 2006

This, the first volume of the harpsichord sonatas by Carlos de Seixas, shows very good production and performance values; no surprise for those already familiar with Naxos’s formidable raft of other recordings of composers familiar and unfamiliar.

Seixas, born in Coimbra, Portugal, was quite prolific for his short life. The sonatas, which are of the sound and style of Scarlatti, are both enjoyable and virtuosic. Some of them—numbers 19, 24 and 44 in particular—demand that the performer executes hand-crossing and wide chordal jumps, which Halasz accomplishes with seeming ease.

Seixas, something of a prodigy, succeeded his father (at 14!) as organist of Coimbra cathedral. Word evidently got around, and two years later he was organist of the Chapel Royal and Patriarchal Cathedral in Lisbon. It is estimated, as the liner notes indicate, that some 700 works were committed to paper, but the catastrophic earthquake that Portugal suffered in 1755 may have contributed greatly to the relatively small number of works that survive. No original manuscripts exist.

Of the sonatas that have come down to us, Sonata 18 is quite enjoyable, from its brooding opening Largo to its sprightly Bach-Scarlatti melding in the following Allegro. The nasal Adagio serves as a less-than-half-minute palate cleanser before the gigue-like final Allegro.

Sonata 34 is a delight, spinning off and throwing sparks. Scarlatti, a contemporary of Seixas, served as an instructor for the younger master. Scholarly discussion remains regarding their mutual influence. This brilliant sonata, with its thunderous chord changes in the first movement and its delicate minuet, is certainly a feather in Seixas’s cap.

Another great standout is the comparatively epic sonata number 10 in C, with its 13-minute first movement, lasting longer, on average, than two or three of the other sonatas combined. This opening Allegro spends far more effort in development of the thematic material. While not as technically demanding from a virtuosic standpoint, it is noteworthy in its repetition and insistent drawing out of the originally rather sunny statements. The subtle variation in sound over the duration of certain passages that Halász draws from the instrument made me curious as to whether these were due to use of knee pedals or just how many registers the instrument had. Little information is given in the booklet regarding the specifications, save that it is a copy of a German instrument by Hass. Glyn Pursglove, in his earlier review of this disc , indicated that the original from which this new instrument was copied may be housed at the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels. Various forays into their website and elsewhere for other instruments made by Hass were inconclusive. The Hass instruments I was able to lay my eyes on didn’t appear to have knee pedals or hand stops, so this point shall remain a mystery for the time being. Regardless, I agree with Pursglove that this is a very fine-sounding instrument. Halász’s performance here is deft and demands attention.

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