GMCD 7280/81 – Six Organ Quintets by Padre  Soler

The Rasumovsky String Quartet, Paul Parsons – Organ

To the CD in our Shop

John Greene, April 2007

No Reference Recording

Quick! When was the last time you heard an organ quintet? That’s right, a work scored for organ and string quartet. Chances are good that you’ve never heard one unless you’ve already listened to this premiere recording of six quintets composed by the ever-resourceful Padre Antonio Soler. Like his better-known concertos for two organs, Soler’s quintets were composed with longstanding organ pupil Prince Gabriel (son of the Spanish royal family) in mind, and they similarly feature many adventurous moments beyond the already unorthodox setting. For instance, the number of movements significantly varies from quintet to quintet–in number, length, and tempo. Organist Paul Parsons’ role here is equally irregular–at times he functions as a soloist in a traditional concerto setting, though more often he performs as an equal member of the ensemble.

Arguably the final and longest quintet, No. 6 in C, is Soler’s most ambitious and fascinating offering. After a succession of five very diverse yet typically brief movements and a sixth four-minute quartet with Parsons serving primarily in a continuo role, Soler presents a nearly 22-minute Rondo with 12 variations, each scored for different solo and instrumental combinations. Of the many inspired moments of this imaginative finale, variations 2 (strings without cello), 8 (organ joined by viola and cello in the second half), 10 (solo organ with chords in alternating registers), and 11 (dialogue between the muted first violin and organ right hand, with pizzicato strings) are most entertaining.

Guild’s sound is very good, with excellent balances between Parsons and the quartet. Christopher Wellington’s informative notes also feature an outline discussing the highlights of each movement. Although the performances are consistently good, the Rasoumovsky Quartet’s intonation and tone quality are shaky at times. Much of this problem may have to do with the group’s relative inexperience performing on gut strings, which they employ here for authenticity. However, in the context of their overall achievement this is not a major drawback, and all fans of the illustrious Padre should strongly consider acquiring this delightful set.

Organists’ Rerview, May 2005

Soler is becoming familiar to us as a composer in early classical style. His music has much elegance which is brought out here in full measure. The combination of string quartet and chamber organ is not commonly encountered. These six organ quintets consist mainly of sonata-style movements, with an occasional minuet. They are substantial in duration, each quintet being not far short of 30 minutes in length. We have therefore about 2½ hours of early classical music of great elegance, sufficient for the most ardent admirers of the chamber music of this period.

Quintet No 1 establishes the early classical-lyrical style straight away. The string playing is most persuasive in style, and this is an attractive feature of the whole recording. The organ is essentially a chamber instrument with 8, 4 and 2ft stops, although additional stops are listed in the description of the instrument. The limpid 8ft “Stop Diapason” features to great effect throughout these recordings. The second quintet introduces the regal stop. These quiet sounds feature throughout the recording, at places prescribed by the composer.

The writing for these instrumental resources is of the utmost variety and holds the listeners’ attention throughout. Quintet No 3 features a dialogue between organ and strings, and it also includes an Allegro Pastorile. Quintet No 4 includes a stately minuet and also a minuetto con variazione. In Quintet No 5 is to be found a rustic minuetto, with lower drone string parts, also two duets, for viola and cello and for the two violins. We note therefore a pleasing synthesis of relatively formal movements of a kind commonly encountered in sonata-based works, alternating with more easygoing material. Perhaps the sixth and last quintet shows Soler at his most mature, with its long section for string quartet, concluding with a rondo and 12 variations of no less than 20 minutes duration. This may be viewed as a culmination of the whole set. The recorded sound is very attractive, with a lively acoustic and with excellent balance particularly between strings and organ.

The music itself relies an repeated compositional habits to a considerable degree. There is much sequential writing to an extent that one feels that the composer is relying an “tried and tested” formulae very many times throughout the course of these 40-odd movements. The quintets must be regarded as somewhat lightweight, with an elegance which suggests that “easy listening” was called for. However the music is very far from easy to perform, and, in the context of the recordings under review, the performers must be admired and thanked for their most musical approach to this very considerable body of very pleasing material.
Normara Dyson

The Organ no. 329 – December 2004

A satisfying couple of CDs that show off Antonio Soler’s flare for quick and effective modulations as brought to light in his 1762 publication Llaves de la modulacion. The six organ quintets are very engaging; the Rasumovsky String Quartet and organist Paul Parsons exhibiting how flexible music for this combination can be. These very pleasing performances are styled through historically informed practices with the stringed instruments all dating from the eighteenth century. The chamber organ is made by the latter day HIP organ makers Goetze and Gwynn and dates from 2003, though, we are informed, it’s character ‘has many things in common with an organ of the 1770s in Spain,’ much around the time the quintets were written. However, the instrument is armed with a transposing keyboard for pitches A392, A41S, A440 and A46S, cheating a little, perhaps, our perception of such instruments of the time, but meeting the needs of modern flexibility and economy. Further explanations are given in the very informative booklet together with the organ’s specification accompanied with photographs of the instrument in situ at Bothamsall Parish Church where the recording took place in 2003. A great CD for those interested in lesser-known repertoire and highly recommended for any organ enthusiast.

International Record Review – October 2004

Here is something that certainly doesn’t fit our normal generic expectations for eighteenth-century chamber music. When Soler became organ tutor to Prince Gabriel, son of Carlos III, in 1776, as well as writing six delightful duets for two organs -which he was able to play with his pupil in a specially constructed palace near the Escorial monastery -he also penned these six quintets for organ and four solo strings. They do not exactly behave as chamber music in the customary later eighteenth-century sense either. Given the relative lack of compatibility between the constituent forces, Soler often alternates passages for the organist and the string players, but he does this with considerable resource so that one is not always aware of the basic antiphony. The excellent commentary by violist Christopher Wellington quite rightly notes that the composer seems to settle down into the unusual textural idiom from the Third Quintet onwards. From this point one finds an impressive variety of approaches, if still tending to operate through blocks of texture rather than featuring absolute interchangeability of material. Several movements, for instance, feature duets between organ and muted first violin while the other strings play pizzicato, and in the final rondo of the Fifth Quintet two consecutive episodes feature duets for viola and cello and then the two violins.

There is also great variety of stylistic resource. This can be grasped just by comparing the various types of minuet on offer, from the musette-like drones of that in No.5 to the mellow cantabile found in that of No.6. In all but one case the trios are actually called ‘Quartetto’ and mostly feature the four strings alone. But we also find echoes of the Baroque concerto, idyllic galant lyricism and even a fugue in the first work. For me the most rewarding works are No.3 and, especially, No.6 in G minor. In its marvellous first movement a sombre Andante for muted strings alternates twice with quicker Allegro material for organ and strings without their mutes, before all combine in a final Andante. The following Minuetto and even more its central ‘Quartetto’ are quite captivating in their original sense of gesture.

If the quality and range of Soler’s invention is memorable, what is less winning is his control of larger- scale structure. Some movements (such as the Cantabile con moto that opens Quintet No.2) seem interminably long, at least to this modern ear .One might counter that this was music for private entertainment, but the writing is not fine-grained enough to sustain interest through some of the lengthier numbers. This also causes a difficulty for the string players. They cannot really imagine themselves to be acting like a string quartet, given the nature of their parts. Sometimes they in fact function as a small orchestra, or a tutti in a concerto, yet on the other hand there are movements where the writing is highly differentiated, and all four parts have many moments in the spotlight, but it is not the kind of integrated writing that one finds, for example, in the string chamber music of Boccherini.

This uncertainty can be felt both in the recording – which has to be more widely spread than one would normally hear for a string quartet in order to accommodate the organ -and in the playing. Too often what one hears is a rather all-purpose approach from the strings, not really taking a great deal of trouble to blend and lacking some punctiliousness, for instance in the fashioning of cadence points. And execution is often untidy or laboured. Paul Parsons is neater than this, although he does have a tendency to swallow quicker note values and not allow enough space around phrases. Further, there are a considerable number of errors that should not have made it past the editing process – in the first movement of No.2, for example, there are moments to forget at 0’30”, 1’43” and 2’59”. Altogether there is a degree of interpretative stiffness in these performances which suggests that more time was needed to get inside the music and weight it more finely. While enjoyment is conveyed at many points (the finale of No.3, the Minuets of No.4), too often elsewhere this seems like an underachieving presentation of some refreshingly different music.
W. Dean Sutcliffe