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A Requiem for the death of Heinrich I.F Biber (1644 -1704)

The Gabrieli Consort and Players directed by Paul McCreesh, Exeter Cathedral 7th July 2004 (BK)


A themed evening of music by Biber and composers loosely connected with him is an unusual event in Exeter, even when it is part of the city’s enterprising annual Summer Festival. A great pity then, that a combination of unfamiliar programming and some appalling weather brought a small audience (the Cathedral was barely half full) to this interesting concert.


Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli Consort have established a solid reputation for reconstructions of early-music events, of which one of the best known is their recorded Festive Vespers service as it might have been performed at San Marco, Venice in 1643 (DGG Archiv 437 552 (2 CDs). This performance couples Monteverdi’s well-known Vespers of 1610 with less familiar pieces by his near contemporaries to provide an illustrative setting for the major work.


To provide a similar context for Biber’s Requiem in F minor, Wednesday evening’s concert explored the theme ‘Media Vita in Morte Sumus/ In the midst of life we are in death.’ It began with a Prelude consisting of an eight-part double choir motet by Lassus ‘Omnia tempus habent / To everything there is a season’ which was followed by a section called ‘Vita /Life.’ This section contained excerpts from Biber’s Mass in B flat for six voices and continuo, two short sonatas for strings and organ by Johann Schmelzer (c 1620 – 1680) and additional pieces by Johann Kaspar Kerll (1627 – 1693,) Steffano Bernardi (1585-1636) and Abraham Megerle (dates not given.)


After a short interval, a third section ‘Mors/ Death’ contained a complete performance of Biber‘s thirty minute Requiem in F minor and a Postlude section containing a second Lassus motet ‘Media vita in morte sumus a 6’ rounded the evening off.


The programming of this concert was not entirely successful and energetic bottom-shuffling was discernable in the audience, especially before the interval, and probably for three reasons. The sheer unfamiliarity of any of Biber’s music to many of the hardy folk who braved the elements to attend was certainly one factor: whereas in other McCreesh reconstructions the major work is fairly well-known, Biber’s major claim to familiarity with those who know him at all, is likely to be based on the Missa Salsburgiensis or the Rosary Sonatas rather than on the Requiem in F Minor.


Secondly, the use of some of Biber’s other music (and in fragmented form at that) to provide a context for the Requiem helped very little since it meant that intrinsic unfamiliarity was simply compounded. Thirdly though, and perhaps most importantly, some of the singing in the first half was distinctly below par: there was ragged tone from almost all parts on occasions and a good deal of poor ensemble; all this despite vigorous conducting from McCreesh.


Having said all this however, there were some excellent items before the interval: the first of the Schmelzer sonatas, with its mix of Italianate technique and central European expressiveness was played extremely beautifully and the Megerle duet for two sopranos (Peccator et consolator a 2) was sung very sensitively and with lovely sound from both Ruth Holton and Susan Hemington-Jones. The Bernardi piece, an eight part setting of O Sacrum Convivium was also very effective.


After the interval, the musicianship of the Gabrieli Consort and Players and the full brilliance of Biber’s writing revealed themselves fully in the performance of the Requiem. Scored for five soloists (S S T Bar B) this short work contains some extremely imaginative

material which from its seventeenth century perspective manages to combine the sonorities of past eras with forward looking string writing. The tenor part is interesting too: it is written for haute-contre and was delivered with great style by Daniel Auchinloss whose singing admirably complemented the sense of authenticity provided by Susan Hemington-Jones, Ruth Holton, Charles Pott, Simon Grant and the rest of the Consort.


The audience was greatly appreciative by the end of the programme but its numbers would probably have been larger if the concert had doubled this Biber Requiem with Mozart’s as it did at QEH on the previous evening.


Bill Kenny


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