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Early Music

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Heinrich Ignaz Franz von BIBER (1644-1704)
The Rosary Sonatas

CD 1 Readings and sonatas 1-9 [79:47]
CD 2 Readings and sonatas 10-15; Passacaglia [77:18]
Pavlo Beznosiuk (violins)
David Roblou (harpsichord, chamber organ)
Paula Chateauneuf (theorbo, archlute)
Richard Tunnicliffe (viola da gamba; violone)
Timothy West (reader)
Rec. 30 Nov – 4 Dec 2003 at St Andrew’s Church, Toddington, UK. DDD
AVIE AV0038 [77:18 + 79:47 = 2:37:05]



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Biber’s Rosary Sonatas, completed in around 1676, represent the summit of violin scordatora (literally "mistuned") composition. Using this approach, Biber was able to create new sonorities and specify harmonies not normally achievable on the instrument. With nearly all of the sonatas requiring scordatura, the effect of hearing these pieces can sometimes be disorienting, but, in the right hands, never less than enthralling.

Each of the sonatas depicts one of the Fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary, centred on the lives of Christ and Mary. The pieces are grouped by three descriptive headings, Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious, which provided Biber ample scope for presenting a rich tapestry of textures and emotions.

I am pleased to say that this recording is a triumph. Not only is the level of musicianship extremely high, but the inclusion of relevant readings (by the popular and acclaimed British actor, Timothy West) before each sonata adds greatly to the otherwise rather abstract nature of the music.

The recording has a rich, mellow quality, perfectly suiting the contemplative nature of many of these pieces. In the first sonata for example, the partnership of violin with theorbo (wonderfully played by Paula Chateauneuf), is warm and poised. There are some difficult passages here, particularly in the second and third movements, where motifs are repeated in different octaves and at different tempos. Despite the demands, Beznosiuk remains in control throughout.

In the second sonata (concerned with the visit of Mary to Elizabeth), the first movement sets up the tone colours for subsequent movements. Beznosiuk seems rather less sure of himself here, the melody hidden within the demands of the piece. In the allemande, there is a stop-start quality to his playing, which prevents the full beauty of the composition to emerge. However, he is much more successful in the presto, leaning into the music with verve and purpose.

The third sonata describes the birth of Christ in the Manger and the visit of the shepherds. Containing some superb interplay of lute and violin, and beautifully realised dance movements, this is the most graceful of the five ‘Joyful’ sonatas.

The following sonata is comprised of a single ciacona, in which a sequence of simple themes gradually builds to moments of great intensity. Again, Beznosiuk provides the necessary control, and the instrument sounds superb. Unfortunately, he is let down in places by some rather loose harpsichord playing by David Roblou.

The last of the Joyful sonatas, which describes the finding of the young Christ in the temple, is most notable for a delightful gigue, and sarabande, in which the violin, theorbo and harpsichord blend to produce a rich, final movement.

The Sorrowful Mysteries begins with the Agony in the Garden, appropriately composed as an aching lament, in which the organ sets up a mood of desolation. This is followed, after a short presto, by two wonderful adagios. Beznosiuk refuses to rush here, and wrings out moments of astonishing beauty, partnered by Roblou on chamber organ.

Musicianship of the highest level marks out the remaining Sorrowful sonatas, although it is a shame that timing constraints necessitated spanning the two discs. Of these, sonata 9 (The Carrying of the Cross) has an achingly emotive, almost physical impact. This is perhaps the most astonishing of all the sonatas for me. It sounds very unusual, but the arrangement for violin, chamber organ and theorbo works incredibly well. The particular instrument Beznosiuk chose for this piece (Hill Workshop London, 1760) was only used again once in this recording (sonata 15), but on the basis of the performance, I wished he had played it on more of them.

The 10th sonata (Crucifixion), begins with some crashing harpsichord chords by Roblou and excellent work by Chateauneuf. There are some fiendishly difficult variations, and at times, the violin and harpsichord sound a little out of tune. The dramatic final variation, taken at great speed, is dazzling.

The 11th sonata, which opens the Glorious Mysteries, begins with the bare bones of plaintive violin lines played against a long, low note held on the chamber organ. This is shortly followed by perhaps the most simple, but beguiling melody in the set, played in a low register and echoed by a singing violin line. This really is music of the absolute highest quality, once heard, never forgotten.

The Ascension (Sonata 12), starts almost like a military theme, but this quickly subsides to a graceful melody, one of only two sonatas to include a violone, played by Richard Tunnicliffe. Sonata 13, contains some dark, enchanting theorbo passages, and dramatic work by Beznosiuk, describing the Descent of the Holy Ghost. This sounds the most unlike any of the other sonatas, almost Spanish to my ears. It is taken at a relaxed pace which allows the music to breathe and flow. Again, a magical performance. The final sonata (The Coronation of the Blessed Virgin) is the longest, and one of profound contemplation. Light, nimble playing by all, which brings the 15 magnificent creations to their conclusion.

What follows the sonatas is surely the greatest solo violin composition before Bach. The Passacaglia, with its 65 repetitions of the descending tetrachord, is an astonishingly intense work, demanding the utmost concentration throughout the 10 minutes or so it takes to play. Beznosiuk may seem at times a little too stately and slow in the first minutes, but there is an intensity and sense of purpose in his playing that never falters, and his performance cannot fail to impress.

If you are unfamiliar with Biber’s music, this is the ideal place to start. Hardcore Biber fans should not hesitate. You may not always want to hear the readings, but they do add significantly to the unique value of these discs. A fabulous offering.

Peter Bright

see also review by Jonathan Woolf



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