ANTONIO FRANCISCO JAVIER JOSÉ SOLER (1729 – 1783) and SEBASTIÁN RAMÓN DE ALBERO Y AÑAÑOS (1722 – 1756): Suspiros de españa – Spanish Harpsichord Sonatas—Philippe Leroy, harpsichord [Recorded in L’Église de Marsolan, Midi-Pyrénées, France, 12 – 15 May 2008; Peyrole Records, MHP 2056; 2CD, 90:45; Contact Peyrole Records to order this recording]
One of the most persistent quandaries in Classical Music—and, indeed, one that unites this glorious art with popular music and virtually all aspects of universal humanity—is the disheartening way in which fools and sycophants rise to prominence while deserving, genuinely gifted artists struggle in pursuit of elusive recognition. The evolution of the Classical recording industry and the technologically-actuated increase in fellowship among music lovers that should foster an environment in which artists of quality can enjoy exposure equal to their merits have, in fact, facilitated an opposite reality: the voices that are most heard are those that are amplified by garish hype and reputations little reliant upon musical values. Quietly, French-born harpsichordist and organist Philippe Leroy has attained and shared with those fortunate enough to have heard him play mastery of his chosen instruments that far exceeds the accomplishments of many of the most renowned exponents of historically-appropriate keyboard playing. Content to leave his more celebrated colleagues to posing for publicity photographs and writing egotistically imbecilic liner notes for their widely-distributed recordings, Mr. Leroy has devoted himself to honing his skills as an interpreter of music for the harpsichord and organ to a level that surely matches—and, in some cases, exceeds—the talents of the great masters of the 17th and 18th Centuries. Suspiros de españa explores the harpsichord Sonatas of two of those masters, the Spaniards Antonio Francisco Javier José Soler, whose body of work remains a cornerstone of the harpsichord repertoire, and the less-known Sebastián Ramón de Albero y Añaños, traversing in ninety minutes some of the richest, most sagacious music composed for the harpsichord. Listeners for whom the harpsichord summons reluctant thoughts of dainty sounds and endless stretches of secco recitative must be forewarned, however: the playing on these discs, recorded in minimal takes with only a pair of microphones and no editing or tweaking of monitors, is as robust as any pianist’s performances of Beethoven or Brahms Piano Sonatas. It is the style of the music and not the integrity of the music-making that differs, of course, and in his playing of these sonatas for harpsichord Mr. Leroy proves a veritable mago encantador. Suspiros de españa indeed provokes countless sighs of pleasure, but there are also numerous passages that inspire well-earned gasps of awe.
As the appellation by which he is known to many musicians and listeners suggests, Padre Soler pursued an ecclesiastical lifestyle from an early age, entering the famed choir school—the Escolania—of the Benedictine abbey of Santa María de Montserrat at the age of six. After studies with the abbey’s music master and organist (and perhaps also with Domenico Scarlatti, who was resident in Spain from 1729 until his death in 1757 and whose music for harpsichord cannot have failed to influence Soler even if the two composers did not engage in formal tutelage), Soler entered the monastic Order of Saint Jerome. He was eventually appointed maestro de capilla at el Escorial, where his duties included supervising the musical education of the Spanish Royal Family. It may well have been for the most talented of his regal charges, the Infante of Spain, that many of Soler’s Harpsichord Sonatas were composed. Despite the rigors of his liturgical vocation, Soler was a prolific composer: the published canon of his works contains 120 Harpsichord Sonatas, and some musicologists estimate the actual number of his compositions in this genre to be between 150 and 200. For Suspiros de españa, Mr. Leroy selected eleven of Soler’s finest Sonatas, forming a programme that is uncommonly successful in its continuity and key progression. Having chosen two Sontas in C♯ minor (Nos. 20 and 21), two in D minor (Nos. 24 and 25), one in A minor (No. 71), two in C minor (Nos. 18 and 19), one in F Major (No. 69), one in F minor (No. 72), and two in D Major (Nos. 73 and 74), Mr. Leroy plays them with technical panache that draws sounds of extraordinary vitality from the wonderful Anthony Sidey harpsichord, a copy of a 1735 instrument from the German school of Gottfried Silbermann. Prepared for this recording by its maker using a typical 18th-Century unequal temperament with a = 415 Hz, the instrument responds with full-bodied tones to Mr. Leroy’s touch, confounding lingering notions that the harpsichord is an anemic instrument unsuited to solo recitals. Unlike many of his colleagues who have recorded Soler’s Harpsichord Sonatas, Mr. Leroy does not sacrifice rhythmic flexibility, rubato, or nuances of interpretation to unyielding pursuits of hard-nosed ‘authenticity.’ His playing exhibits a complete mastery of the art of imaginative interpretation that expands the boundaries of period-appropriate stylishness rather than being confined by them. The three Sonatas in major keys, including the pair of D-Major Sonatas with which the Soler disc ends, emerge as sunny oases among the darker atmospheres of the minor-key Sonatas, but Mr. Leroy looks beyond key signatures and explores the deeper sentiments in each Sonata.
That the harpsichord music of Sebastián de Albero is less familiar to 21st-Century listeners than that of Padre Soler is revealed by Mr. Leroy’s performances of sixteen of the composer’s thirty known Harpsichord Sonatas to be a circumstance of impersonal fate rather than an indication of the quality of the music. Like Soler, the Church was the center of Albero’s musical life, his formative years as a chorister in Pamplona’s Catedral de Santa María la Real preparing him for his later engagement as principal organist in the Chapel Royal in Madrid. During his tenure at the Royal Court, Albero enjoyed proximity to Domenico Scarlatti, by whose harpsichord music Albero’s was ultimately overshadowed, but it is significant that, when he left Spain after the death of Fernando VI in 1759, the great Farinelli—a far more insightful musician than many of his fellow castrati—took many Albero scores with him to Bologna. Albero’s short life prevented him from bequeathing to posterity a considerable body of work, but the Sonatas played by Mr. Leroy reveal a mature musical intelligence. Eschewing the fugal 15th and 30th Sonatas, Mr. Leroy again chose and grouped Sonatas in a manner that emphasizes tonal relationships and thematic development. In addition to two Sonatas in F Major (Nos. 7 and 8), two in A Major (Nos. 20 and 21), one in G minor (No. 17), two in B minor (Nos. 18 and 19), two in B♭ Major (Nos. 13 and 14), one in D Major (No. 12), two in A minor (Nos. 5 and 6), and two in E♭ Major (Nos. 24 and 25), Mr. Leroy plays Sonatas in the G and D Dorian modes (Nos. 16 and 11, respectively), which in their use of scales pitched a whole tone higher than their adjacent keys [i.e. the G Dorian mode adheres to the compass of the F-Major scale, though beginning on G—G, A, B♭ (the minor third), C, D, E, F, G] are essentially minor keys. To an extent, Albero’s harmonies are even more adventurous—more recognizably Spanish, it might be said—than Soler’s, but the influence of Domenico Scarlatti’s ubiquitous Sonatas is more obvious in Albero’s music. This detracts nothing from the young Spaniard’s originality, however, and it is impossible to imagine another artist providing a more stirring exposition of the nobility of Albero’s music than Mr. Leroy evinces through his playing on this disc. The onerous technical demands of these Sonatas do not prevent uplifting lyrical episodes from shining through, though this perhaps would not be so evident in performances by harpsichordists whose playing does not combine virtuosity and emotional discernment so unpretentiously as Mr. Leroy consistently does. Above all, there is a sense of penetrating humanity in Mr. Leroy’s playing, and even the most disquieting technical stumbling blocks do not distract him from his concentration on the less obvious qualities of the music. Only the keyboardist who is certain of his fingers’ adroitness is liberated to engage his senses as palpably as his hands in music as challenging as that of Albero’s Sonatas. Designating an artist a ‘thinking man’s musician’ has become clichéd, but with his playing of Albero’s music, which has never been delivered more majestically on disc, Mr. Leroy secures the distinction.
Suspiros de españa is a perfect recording for those listeners who cling to their misconceptions of the harpsichord as an instrument for quaint music and players in periwigs. It is also ideal for those who know better. Most significantly, Suspiros de españa is an unsurpassed performance of the music of two gifted composers heretofore underserved on disc and, for listeners who have not yet encountered his playing, an outstanding introduction to the work of a resplendently percipient artist. The inquisitive spirit of the Baroque Revival has thus far only skimmed the surface of Spanish repertoire of the 17th and 18th Centuries, but this recording intoxicatingly tills the fertile fields of Padre Soler’s and Sebastián Albero’s Harpsichord Sonatas. What Suspiros de españa is not is a ‘specialist’ recording that can only be enjoyed by listeners for whom Baroque repertoire is typical fare. Philippe Leroy brings to the music of Soler and Albero what Artur Schnabel brought to Schubert and Claudio Arrau to Chopin—technical mastery allied with a poetic earnestness that transcends rigid efforts at stylistic correctness. Whatever the idiom of the music at hand, marvelous playing never goes out of style, and Philippe Leroy’s performances on Suspiros de españa are like a rioja of excellent vintage; earthy, invigorating, and to be savored without reservation.