A little over two weeks ago, Delos Productions released a new CD of “Six Concerti for Two Keyboards” by Antonio Soler. The quote marks are there because the title needs clarification. In the publications of Soler’s works released by the Union Musical Española, the performing editions of these concertos were prepared by Padre Samuel Rubio under the title (following the typography on one of the Union’s publications) “SEIS CONCIERTOS PARA DOS ORGANOS o para dos instrumentos de tecla.” This suggests that Soler conceived of the concertos for two organs but probably realized that, since finding two organs in the same location could be problematic, any pair of independent keyboards would suffice.
The primary selection, however, seems to have been based on pedagogical reasons. Soler had been appointed harpsichord tutor to Gabriel, son of Charles, the fifth son of King Philip V of Spain. Charles would become King Charles III, making Gabriel the Infante Gabriel, who died of smallpox in 1788. For his musical studies an organ was built with two keyboards on opposite sides of a cabinet of pipes; and, as Newsome observes, this is the instrument on which the concertos were first played by Soler and Gabriel.
Soler is probably best known for his 120 keyboard sonatas. Like those of his predecessor, Domenico Scarlatti, these are single-movement compositions. It is clear from the treatise he published on modulation that Soler was aware of Scarlatti and admired him greatly. Scarlatti spent the last quarter century of his life at the Spanish court; but, as the booklet notes by Joseph Newsome observe, there is much debate over whether Soler actually met him. Naxos is currently on its second round of recording all of Soler’s sonatas; and, as of the beginning of this year, they had released five volumes that account for about half of them.
As performed by Philippe LeRoy and Jory Vinikour, the six concertos fit comfortably on a single CD lasting about 75 minutes. All but one of them have only two movements, and all of them conclude with a minuet. All but the last begin with a slow tempo. The first movement of the final concerto has an opening movement that alternates between fast and slow tempos, leading one to wonder if Soler may have just encountered some of the scores of Arcangelo Corelli and realized that there was another Italian he admired as much as Scarlatti! (Newsome never mentions Corelli in his notes.)
Many of Soler’s keyboard sonatas are best known for their sometimes outlandish virtuosic demands. Several are likely to leave the performer wishing that (s)he had at least one extra hand. (That last sentence was written from personal experience with the tenth sonata in B minor!) On the basis of listening alone, it is hard to tell just how much of that virtuosity is imposed on two performers at separate keyboards. If the concertos were composed for pedagogical purposes, then the emphasis may have been on basic keyboard dexterity. However, Gabriel was apparently an excellent pupil; so Soler may have written the concertos to amuse the two of them with call-and-response exchanges.
LeRoy and Vinikour present the concertos with admirable clarity, meaning that the listener has no trouble following either the thematic material of its development. However, visual input from physical presence would probably be necessary for the listener to have a clear sense of when which performers are playing what. As a result listening alone is insufficient to work out any give-and-take rhetorical gestures. Thus, the best that this recording can offer is an appreciation for the overall effect; but that is an appreciation that would definitely benefit any listener fortunate enough to encounter one of these concertos in performance.