Two weeks ago today Naxos released the eighth volume in its second project to record all of the keyboard sonatas of Antonio Soler. The first project had presented Gilbert Rowland playing all of the sonatas on harpsichord. All of the releases in the second project consist of piano performances, all played by prize-winning pianists from the annual Maria Canals International Music Competition in Barcelona. These pianists are not being presented in “chronological order.” The seventh volume presented the winner of the first prize at the 60th competition, held in 2014. The eighth volume also presents a first prize winner but from an earlier competition, the 58th, held in 2012. That pianist is Soo-Jung Ann:
Soo-Jung Ann (photograph by Dan Hannen, courtesy of Naxos)
Fortunately, the sonatas themselves are being released in numerical order as they were published in seven volumes of transcriptions and scholarly revisions of manuscript sources by Samuel Rubio. (Any reference to a Soler sonata with an “R” number refers to Rubio’s publications, which run to seven volumes.) However, if we are to believe the description on the Amazon.com Web page for this recording, there may be some dispute over how many sonatas make for a “complete” account. That description (which also appears on the back cover of the album, claims that Soler “wrote around 150 keyboard sonatas;” but Rubio’s seven volumes only account for 120. Since I only have the first of Rubio’s volumes, I can only confirm that the numbers of the first twenty sonatas align with the first twenty sonatas to be recorded in this project.
The sonatas on this new release cover the numbers between 75 and 86. All of those sonatas are single-movement compositions with only one exception. Number 79 is a two-movement piece in (of all keys) F-sharp major. My guess is that there is a thesis to be written that addresses rhetorical correlates of Soler’s key selections, but I am not going to be the one to write it!
On the other hand, the fact that Soler chose to write in this key at all leads me to wonder whether Ann’s piano can do justice to interpreting the score. As far as I can tell, she is playing an equal-tempered instrument, since there are only a handful of exceptional cases that require a modern piano to be tuned any other way. Soler, on the other hand, was writing in eighteenth-century Spain, a time when the benefits of equal temperament were acknowledged but not always honored. Thus, Soler may well have tuned his instrument (probably a harpsichord) using perfect fifths and major thirds to define his intervals. Having decided to write in F-sharp major, he then would have written in a way that either avoided or exploited those intervallic “commas” that depart from the five fundamental overtones of the harmonic series.
If Soler took this approach, then it is clear that at least a few of his intervals would sound markedly different. A researcher (again better than I am) may be able to identify from Rubio’s score whether or not Soler avoided intervals in his 79th sonata that he might use frequently when writing in C major. Alternatively, there may have been intervals that he deliberately exploited, perhaps to make sure that anyone listening would not fall asleep. (As we know, Joseph Haydn had his own ways of dealing with such listeners.)
Fortunately, the fact that this new album does not serve as a potentially useful object lesson in musicology is pretty much its only flaw. One can still appreciate the rhetorical breadth of the twelve sonatas on this recent release. For most listeners, that will be enough to make the listening experience a delightfully engaging one.