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Heinrich Ignaz Franz von BIBER (1644-1704)
Requiem à 15 in A

Agostino STEFFANI (1654-1728)

Stabat Mater

Marta Almajano, Mieke van der Sluis – sopranos
John Elwes, Mark Padmore – tenors
Frans Huits – baritone; Harry van der Kamp - bass
Koor and Barockorkest van de Nederlandse Bachvereniging/Gustav Leonhardt
rec 22-24 October 1994, Pieterskerk, Utrecht, The Netherlands
DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 05472 77344 2 [63.38]


It is now nearly ten years since this recording came out. The present writer was living in Utrecht at the time it was recorded and issued and well remembers the flurry of associated Biber activity that seemed to overwhelm the concert life of the city at that time. This was the first recording of the fifteen-voice Requiem. It was a remarkable achievement, undertaken with Gustav Leonhardt’s usual authoritative stamp.

The Requiem was most likely composed for the funeral of the man who was probably the greatest ruler Salzburg ever had, Prince-Archbishop Maximilian Gandolph, Biber’s patron and a great promoter of the arts in general. He had died suddenly on 3 May 1687. He lay in state for six days, before being carried in procession to his cathedral where this solemn Requiem was performed, having been composed and rehearsed in the intervening six days. Biber must be considered the major musical figure between Monteverdi and Bach and the more of his sacred works that become available on recordings the more this view will be confirmed. The Requiem à 15 may have been composed quickly, but it shows no signs of haste or roughness. It is unusual in several ways, not least the key of A major (Biber’s other later Requiem is in the more sombre key of F minor) and the inclusion of two festive trumpets and timpani. While Biber considers aspects of death at various times in this work the overall feeling is not one of sombre mourning but, possibly befitting a great and genuinely much-loved ruler, of calm grandeur and the confident assurance of victory and heavenly glory.

In this recording it is in the vigorous passages that Leonhardt’s controlled grandeur of expression is shown at its best. The opening rhythmic passages of the Offertorium, with bass duet and trumpets show this drive well. The bass soloists are of as fine a quality as the soprano and tenor pairings and the trumpet playing of Po Lindeke and Hans-Martin Kothe has a marvellous bite and pungency without overbalancing against the singers. In the choral sections one occasionally gets the feeling that the choir of the Nederlandse Bachvereniging is a little too large for the complex textures; although Biber’s orchestral forces are forward-looking in their distribution, the vocal writing is still heavily indebted to the Venetian model of multiple ensemble textures rather than a single body of "choir". It is in this aspect, with three or four voices per part, that there occurs some rather thick sounding singing. This is noticeable for example in the Hosanna section of the Sanctus where the choir’s rapid repetitions of ‘in excelsis’ lack the same sense of upward growth that the soloists bring to the same section in dialogue. There is another version of this Requiem available on CD now – that by La Capella Reial de Catalunya under Jordi Savall – reviewed elsewhere on this site. The Savall recording has some advantages in the greater overall sense of polish in the ensemble performances. Furthermore it is recorded in Salzburg Cathedral itself. However this is not to denigrate the sound quality of the Leonhardt recording. The acoustic of the Utrechtse Pieterskerk is spacious and warm – amply suited to the music and, while the grouping of performers in the smaller Pieterskerk space does not give the same special sense of Savall’s recording there is a clarity of sound – even in the thickest textures – that the Deutsche Harmonia Mundi engineers have captured magnificently. Choosing between these two performances is not easy, especially given the almost magisterial authority of both Savall and Leonhardt. The couplings may help. Whereas the Savall recording pairs the Requiem with the well-known Biber Battalia and comes in at a somewhat less than generous 47 minute total, this Leonhardt disc pairs the Biber with a real rarity well worth discovering.

The slightly later Stabat Mater by Agostino Steffani is cast in a more traditional ‘baroque’ sound-world. Steffani has only recently come to any sort of prominence as a composer, and then largely for his secular music. Like many of the multi-talented artists of the 17th and 18th centuries Steffani was a part-time composer – having been ordained priest in 1680 he pursued a career in administration and diplomacy, becoming a titular Bishop in 1707, president of the local council of Düsseldorf and both Rector and Chancellor of Heidelberg University. In between he found time to write music of a distinctively original bent, employing in the Stabat Mater a range of techniques from consciously archaic stilus ecclesiasticus through to extremely rhetorical and affecting writing making use of some remarkably low bass writing. This is performed with suitably operatic gravitas by Harry van der Kamp, to whom these subterranean passages appear to present no challenge.

It would probably have to be said that Jordi Savall’s 2003 Astrée disc of the Biber Requiem has the edge over the older Leonhardt in terms of perfection of performance. Savall’s ensembles are more virtuosic than Leonhardt’s, but the DHM disc does have the advantage in offering two substantial works of equal interest, rather than one, with a short coupling. The twelve movements of the Steffani Stabat Mater are imbued with piquant subtleties and endless invention of textural, harmonic and melodic ideas. Authoritative performances of both works, with particularly good soloists mean that there is nothing to be lost from this ten-year-old recording.

Peter Wells

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