ANTONIO SOLER: Harpsichord Sonatas (Complete Rubio Edition) – Barbara Harbach, harpsichord – MSR Classics

ANTONIO SOLER: Harpsichord Sonatas (Complete Rubio Edition) – Barbara Harbach, harpsichord – MSR Classics MS1300 (14 CDs), 14+ hours [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Though Antonio Soler (1729-83) achieved quite a bit of fame in Europe for his harpsichord and organ works, it was his keyboard sonatas that really cemented his reputation, and they are the reason for our interest today. Often compared to Domenico Scarlatti, his pieces composed in a variety of styles featuring early one movement formats to later multi-sectional pieces do exercise some of the same methods as the Italian master. But Soler was not Scarlatti, though this should not deter us today any more than listening to Mozart’s music means we ignore the rest of the Classical period. The endless variety and sparkling sonorities that he produces lend themselves to hours of relaxed and sometimes enthralling listening, an especial remedy for those looking for something new along the byways of late Baroque/ early Classical keyboard music.

We don’t know much about his life because he entered the Escolania of the Monastery of Montserrat in 1736 as a young boy to study music, and stayed in relative monastic seclusion.  He was born in Olot de Porrera in Catalonia, Spain in 1729 and became organist and sub-deacon at the Cathedral of La Seu d’Urgell in 1744, taking holy orders at age 23 and remaining in Madrid for the rest of his life. He never reaches for the stars in his music, being more contemplative in nature, though there is an unerring consistency and perfection in his art that is always seeking just the right note at the right time.

In this nicely-priced set (a hundred bucks for 14 discs) Barbara Harbach opts for the edition of Padre Samuel Rubio, who sets the canonical listing at 120 sonatas, and they are recorded in numerical order, which is nice if you wish to concentrate on a certain period or trace the composer’s development over time. We really can’t call the set “complete” as there are other sonatas not included in Rubio’s edition (and which have been recorded on Naxos by Gilbert Rowland and given in a varied ordering), but Rubio’s inclusions cannot be dismissed so easily either. [There is a total of over 550 Scarlatti sonatas and more are constantly being discovered…Ed.] Rowland’s set is in a more natural acoustic, and is perhaps more demonstrative in nature. Harbach by contrast goes for a very close recording with little ambiance around the instrument. However, this is not a bad thing as these sonatas lend themselves to this sort of aural examination, and one is energized upon hearing the delightful articulation and sprightly sense of bounciness and dance that she brings to the instrument, while the close up sound allows for the degree of intimacy we would most likely find in a drawing room during Soler’s time.

These are tremendous recordings and an important addition to the catalog!
—Steven Ritter

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