We have been very fortunate that these
amazing sonatas have in the last few
years been recorded by about half a
dozen extremely talented violinists
who in addition to being virtuosos are
highly committed to ‘early music’. One
such, the 30 year old Italian Riccardo
Minisi is featured here. There have
been other recent recordings by the
equally superb Andrew Manze, John Holloway,
Reinhard Goebel and Walter Reiter but
I am not here attempting a comparative
‘Mystery Sonatas’ consist of fifteen short works for violin and
continuo. Their inspiration lies in the so-called fifteen Mysteries
of the Virgin which are sometimes directly programmatically portrayed
and which are sometimes somewhat elusive. They divide into three
groups of five. The Joyful mysteries are based on episodes in
the early life of Jesus, the Nativity for example; the middle
group are the sorrowful mysteries like ‘The Crown of Thorns’,
and the final group are the Glorious mysteries which continue
the story from the Resurrection to the Assumption and then to
the Coronation of the Virgin. The work is capped off by a grand
unaccompanied Passacaglia for violin. The whole sequence lasts
over two hours and is therefore on two discs. I wonder if Biber
intended the work to be played, as it were, in one sitting.
composed these works for Archbishop Max Gandolph. The composer
pointed out in his dedication that “Gandolph was strongly in favour
of the Rosary in Salzburg”. The cycle was used during
the Rosary devotions during the months of September and October.
As the faithful walked in procession they would have listened
to appropriate biblical passages and commentaries and also to
Biber’s music. And, a curious concept for us is, as Raffaele Mellace
remarks in his excellent booklet notes “the dance forms which
underpin the entire collection would have inspired strict meditation”.
The original manuscript comes complete with 15 elegant roundels
which are relevant to the subject of each sonata.
sonata requires a different violin tuning called Scordatura or
as the booklet calls it ‘cross-tunings’ these are listed in the
booklet under each sonata heading. Some are quite extraordinary.
But what makes these sonatas virtuoso compositions for the solo
performer - and I am sure for the composer - is that once re-tuned,
the notation remains as usual, to correspond with continuo harmony.
This is Scordatura and many violinists dread it, because they
are effectively always transposing. The reason for some of these
tunings is quite obvious and indeed programmatic. For example
the beautiful ‘Ascension’ sonata has a C major tuning, g-c-g-d.
Contrast that with the 9th Sonata ‘Jesus Carries His
Cross’ which is in A minor, tuned to straining point c-e-a-e -
in other words all strings raised a fourth giving a somewhat strangled
there are other programmatic elements in the music. The ‘Resurrection’
sonata is the only one in a continuous movement. It includes a
Latin hymn tune suitable for Easter Day ‘Surrexit Christus Hodie’.
It begins in total stillness – the dawn of Easter morning. The
free recitativic tempo gradually builds so that in the brightness
of the dawn sun the empty tomb is displayed; then enters, at first
quietly, the Choral melody. Incidentally the tuning for this sonata
is so odd that it creates a very unearthly effect. In the ‘Ascension’
sonata the soloist is expected with his terrifically difficult
double-stoppings to imitate a choir of trumpets in the ‘Aria tubicinium’.
In ‘The Crucifixion’ Sonata the rending of the veil over ‘the
holy of holies’ is vividly portrayed by a jagged variation and
some fierce broken-chord passages.
of the sonatas have several movements and include dance titles.
Some have arias followed by Variations which Biber sometimes calls
Doubles and sometimes Variations. I think Doubles can be heard
as simpler or less elaborate variations. The dances include ‘Allemans’
and ‘Courrentes’ which are slipped, curiously into movements like
‘The Visitation’ and even into ‘The Carrying of the Cross’, presumably
on the grounds of ‘why should the devil have the best tunes?’
cannot be too high for Riccardo Minasi and the wonderfully named
Bizzarie Armoniche, not inappropriate for Biber. I especially
like the way in which the continuo instrumentation is varied from
sonata to sonata. For example the lirone is preferred sometimes
to the theorbo. The organ is sometimes preferred to the ’cembalo’.
There is also an instrument simply called a ‘bassett’ a rather
coarse string bass which sounds like the comb and paper. The harp
is used for flourishes and for bass lines … listen to the ‘Ascension’
sonata: it sounds in places like moments in Battaglia.
make briefly a comparison with another equal fine recording, Walter
Reiter with Cordaria on Signum (SIGCD 021). They supply a more
generous accompanying booklet with the tunings more clearly set
out and with the little roundels mentioned above illustrated.
The individual dances within a sonata are separately tracked and
some of the score is even reproduced. However, both players are
in top form and I cannot find fault with either. One may occasionally
prefer speeds or ornamentations in one or the other. For instance
I love Minasi’s quiet interpretation and gentle touch in Sonata
13 for ‘The Descent of the Holy Spirit’, but these mostly are
new version of The Mystery Sonatas will give much pleasure
and is well worth searching out. The blend, sensitivity and recorded
balance are immaculate and the whole project is beautifully presented.
see also Review
by Dominy Clements