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Heinrich Ignaz Franz BIBER (1644-1704)
Unam Ceylum (1681)
Sonata III F major from "Sonatae Violino Solo 1681"
Sonata IV D major from "Sonatae Violino Solo 1681"
Sonata No. 81 A major (unpublished)
Sonata VI C minor from "Sonatae Violino Solo 1681"
Sonata VII G major from "Sonatae Violino Solo 1681"
Sonata No. 84 E major (unpublished)
John Holloway: violin
Aloysia Assenbaum: organ
Lars Ulrik Mortensen: harpsichord
Rec: May 2001, Monastery of St. Gerold, Austria.
ECM NEW SERIES 1791
[77.19]

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber was one of the seventeenth century’s most individual composers for violin. He is well known for his use of scordatura, a technique which involves retuning the violin to achieve different sonorities and stops. His solo violin works (the Mystery Sonatas) are notoriously difficult, because of this scordatura, and he uses this technique in two of the sonatas on this recording.

This disc contains four sonatas from the 1681 collection which made Biber famous, as well as two unpublished sonatas. They follow different forms: some of them, such as the 4th and 6th, follow the partita form, with an opening prelude, followed by a series of dance movements. Others are in a more common sonata form. Yet not one of these sonatas fits perfectly into either of these structures.

Partly, this is because Biber excels in variations - the Aria and Variations, which appear in many of the sonatas, and the passacaglias of the 6th and unpublished E major sonata. In fact, each of these sonatas contains one such movement. These variations are the heart of each sonata, offering such a wide range of musical material and colour that they overshadow the remainders of the works. Biber’s variations recall those of Buxtehude for harpsichord - seemingly simple in melody, they nevertheless become complex in overall emotion and structure.

The instrumentation chosen for this recording, which has been called "historically wrong" in regards to a previous recording of works by Schmelzer, has depth and warmth, and if it is historically incorrect it is aesthetically effective. The combination of the incisive harpsichord and the rich organ give a unique sound to support John Holloway’s excellent interpretations.

Holloway is an artist obsessed by Biber. I was fortunate to hear him perform some of Biber’s works a few years ago, and attended a pre-concert talk, when Holloway clearly showed just how much he loves this composer’s music. His love for the music shines through on this recording, making it one that I have listened to over and over since I received it. The disc is close to perfection, in the quality of the music, the performances, and the recording itself.

One can understand how this disc fits in ECM’s New Series - the arias and variations that Biber composed, often over very simple grounds, have a hint of the minimalism that flourished (in part on ECM, with some of the first recordings by Steve Reich) in the 1970s.

This fine recording benefits from excellent performances, and unique instrumentation, to present some seminal works by a composer who deserves much more recognition than he has. Perhaps this nearly perfect disc will help remedy this situation.

Kirk McElhearn


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