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Heinrich Ignaz von BIBER (1644-1704)
The Rosary Sonatas (Die Rosenkranz-Sonaten)
Sonatas 1-15 and the Passacaglia
With Readings by Timothy West
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, St Andrew’s Church, Toddington, Gloucestershire
AVIE AV 0038 [2 CDs: 79.47 + 77.18]

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The fifteen Mystery Sonatas date from approximately 1674 and are works of the utmost spirituality. Biber wrote them - he was himself a virtuoso violinist and a technical innovator not least in his use of scordatura, a retuning of the violin from the standard fifths - as representative of moments in the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary. They are pictorial and not obviously representational. The Mysteries are presented sequentially – the five Joyful mysteries followed by the five Sorrowful Mysteries and finally the five Glorious Mysteries – and ending, properly speaking, with the great unaccompanied Passacaglia (as here). In the extraordinary manuscript of the Sonatas, housed in the Bavarian State Library, there are fifteen engravings (probably taken from a Rosary Psalter) depicting the fifteen mysteries whilst the concluding Passacaglia has an engraving of a Guardian Angel holding a child’s hand. In this recording Timothy West prefaces each sonata as he reads from 3 Rosary Psalters.

Pavlo Beznosiuk has been associated with Biber’s Rosary Sonatas for a number of years now and his performances are invariably eagerly anticipated. Surrounding him is an experienced accompanying group, like-minded and expressive, creating textures of great depth with theorbo, archlute, viola da gamba and violone as well as harpsichord and chamber organ. Beznosiuk evokes the tension and ascending lines, full of the purest expectation, in the Annunciation and finds grandeur and nobility in the Allemanda of the second sonata, the Visitation. Equally open to the expressive tenderness and delicacy of the Nativity (an especially well voiced Courante/Double) he impressed me especially strongly in the swaying and crispness and colourful attacca style, full of edge, in the Ciacona of The Presentation in The Temple. The aptness of that instrumental group, for example, can be exemplified by the archlute in the Sixth Sonata. Beznosiuk is fine at the communing intimacies that course through the Sonatas (the first Adagio of the Sixth, say) or in the acrobatic leaps of the Ninth or the same sonata’s tentative frailty and final, abrupt ending.

The searing Crucifixion is followed by a Resurrection conjoined with drone and imitative writing, coupled with spare, elliptical drama and an emergent Hodie Hymnal of devastating candour. But Biber manages to vest these sonatas with rustic brio as well (see the Intrada of No.12) as much as the increasing exultation of the Descent of the Holy Ghost and the Assumption, ending in the noble lyricism (well played by Beznosiuk) of the Sarabanda of the Fifteenth. The great Passacaglia tends to heighten a perception that only once or twice had impinged, namely that Beznosiuk sees the ebb and flow of its rhetoric as intensely human and as a result susceptible of some metrical daring. He doesn’t take it as an unwavering Passacaglia arch, tending rather to coil and uncoil with fervour, if sometimes threatening the structure. A modern instrument performance, such as that by the Czech violinist Gabriela Demeterova takes an opposite view – and it’s one I share, but there’s no denying Beznosiuk’s understanding.

There are plenty of competitors in the repertoire, from such as Demeterova (Supraphon) and original instrument performances from such well-known musicians as Holloway and Moroney, and Reiter and the group Concordia. But Avie’s release is very attractively produced in a resonant acoustic, with fine notes – and makes for enjoyably spiritual listening.

Jonathan Woolf


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