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Heinrich Ignaz von BIBER (1644-1704)
The Mystery Sonatas (Die Rosenkranz-Sonaten)
Scordatura briefly explained [3.45]
Andrew Manze (violin)
Richard Egarr (organ and harpsichord)
Alison McGillivray (cello – Sonata XII)
Recorded Air Studios, Lyndhurst Hall, London, January 2003
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU 907321.22 [72.35 + 68.56]


We are now in the fortunate position, all these years after Edward Melkus’s pioneering 1967 set, of having a catholicity of responses to these towering Sonatas. I’ve listened in the past few months to complete recordings by two leading British exponents, Pavlo Beznosiuk (Avie) and Monica Huggett (Gaudeamus), and now we have a third to add in the shape of Baroque Communicator Supreme Andrew Manze who is joined by Richard Egarr. - Beznosiuk - Huggett Volume 1 - Huggett Volume 2 - Demeterova - Volume 1

The above links will give some idea of the various approaches to the Sonatas. Manze’s is different again. In fact, ironically, he has something more in common with the modern instrument Demeterova than with his fellow baroque violinists – or indeed with Melkus in the 1960s. Manze’s note, illuminating as ever, outlines the history of the surviving manuscript and the issue of course of scordatura. Tellingly he does note that the Sonatas have often fallen victim to the current trend in early music practice of using a large bass group. It is not unusual to hear five musicians play what was probably intended for two, arguably obscuring the music’s raison d’être. I seldom, if ever, quote extensively from booklet notes but this seems to me succinctly to encapsulate Manze’s position and it’s one to which he adheres faithfully.

His approach throughout is deeply considered and reflective. The performances stress the spiritual engagement of the music as others may stress its more earthy spirit or colour. Thus he draws attention to the Amen Cadence in the finale of The Annunciation and to the flowing if relatively astringent Sonata that opens The Nativity the finale of which is sculpted with intensity of phrasing. In The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple we hear Egarr’s discreet and impressive organ playing whilst Manze moves into attaca mode. He reserves greatest weight of colour and inflection for The Agony in the Garden where the play of violin and staccato-limpid organ is affecting, and nevertheless generates a feeling of cumulative ambiguity.

Manze is strong on contrastive episodes such as the very slow Sarabande of The Scourging and the very fast succeeding variations. Manze is by and large significantly slower than his contemporary rivals. He takes greater time to phrase and weights the music with a more significantly intense depth. His Surrexit Christus Hodie from The Resurrection is strong but Huggett is, I think, stronger still in its sense of exultation. And whereas she and Beznosiuk tend to stretch the concluding passacaglia elastically, Manze prefers to employ a range of dynamic shadings to create tension horizontally rather than merely, or mostly, laterally. So there’s much to ponder in these considered and spare readings, which never lack for imagination and virtuosity. Whichever side of the divide one finds oneself with regard to accompanying musicians, there’s no doubt that these readings are powerfully communicative. If pressed however I’d opt for Huggett and for her sense of drama and colour; they seem to embody the depth and fantasy of these works with remarkable intensity.

Jonathan Woolf

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