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Heinrich Ignaz Franz BIBER (1644-1704)
Die Rosenkranz-sonaten – The Mystery Sonatas (1670-75?)
The Annunciation [6:03]
The Visitation [4:55]
The Nativity [6:49]
The Presentation in the Temple [7:47]
The Finding in the Temple [7:40]
The Agony in the Garden [7:47]
The Scourging of Jesus [9:30]
The Crowning with Thorns [6:24]
The Carrying of the Cross [7:40]
The Crucifixion [10:00]
The Resurrection [7:40]
The Ascension [7:13]
The Descent of the Holy Spirit [7:30]
The Assumption of the Virgin [8:51]
The Coronation of the Virgin [11:49]
The Guardian Angel : Passacaglia [9:20]
Camerata Kilkenny/Maya Homburger (baroque violin)
rec. Propstei St Gerold, Austria, 16-23 July 2006. DDD.
MAYA RECORDINGS MCD0603 [57:07 + 70:23]

My first thought on seeing this set was that it was up against some very strong competition, not only at full price on Avie AV0038, recommended by Jonathan Woolf, or Signum SIGCD021, also available as an inexpensive download and strongly recommended by Gary Higginson, but also on an outstanding Virgin Veritas super-bargain-price set with John Holloway (5 62062 2). The Signum version – or another version by the same artists, Cordaria/William Reiter – has recently resurfaced at super-bargain price on Brilliant Classics 93563. For a comparison of the sets by Monica Huggett (CDGAU350-1) and Andrew Manze (HMU90 7321-2), see Jonathan Woolf’s 2004 review. These rival sets are also more attractively packaged, with art-work more likely to catch the eye of the casual purchaser, than the cover of this Maya set.
Camerata Kilkenny is not exactly a household name, though some of its members, not least Maya Homburger herself, are well known in their own right. One might have expected a comparatively unknown group on a self-financed independent label to have chosen a less hotly-contested area of the baroque repertoire. In fact, Homburger’s earlier recordings have mostly been of more out-of-the-way repertoire: a well-received ECM CD on which she performs the opening Biber Mystery Sonata with a quirky rendering of the continuo by Barry Guy and some works by Guy himself; another ECM disc where she plays some more Barry Guy with the Munich Chamber Orchestra, and a third ECM re-interpretation of works by John Dowland. Her excellent recording of Telemann’s unaccompanied Violin Sonatas on her own label appears to have been deleted.
It was, therefore, with mixed expectations – and in less than favourable circumstances – that I played the first disc. Having woken up at 1.00 a.m., unable to get back to sleep, I decided to try what I expected to be the most soothing recording in the pile awaiting review. At that time in the morning the last thought in my mind was to find my copy of the Virgin Veritas set for comparison, much less make critical notes, so I simply sat there to enjoy. More than two hours later I had played the whole of the two CDs and thoroughly enjoyed what I had heard. In the context of a live concert performance or a radio broadcast, then, with no comparisons to hand, these performances would prove enjoyable and more than satisfactory.
But the competition is there and, in the case of the Virgin set, available at about a third of the price of this new set, an important consideration for those of us born north of Watford. It is with this set that I shall be comparing the Maya CDs. Scores of the opening Sonata, The Annunciation, and the closing Passacaglia are available from the Icking music archive, so it is appropriate to begin my comparison with the beginning of the first CD and the end of the second.
Of Homburger’s own expertise and virtuosity there can be no doubt. Though ostensibly written as meditative music to illuminate the ‘mysteries’ of the rosary – five joyful mysteries, five sorrowful and five glorious – it is mostly only the opening prelude in each case which is really linked to the mystery in question, with the violin showing its virtuosity in the remaining movements. Biber was probably the greatest violin virtuoso of his age, as well as a composer: Dr Burney called his music and playing “the most difficult and most fanciful of any music I have seen of the same period.” Only Sonata I and the closing Passacaglia are written for a normally-tuned violin; the remainder make use of different forms of scordatura, whereby the strings are re-tuned. In Sonata XI, the Resurrection, the middle strings are even symbolically crossed over. The notes explain this practice and give details of the tuning for each of the sonatas.
In the opening sonata the fluttering demisemiquavers (thirty-second notes) of the violin represent the wings of the angel Gabriel over a passive bass, possibly representing the stillness of Mary – for the first nine-and-a-half bars and again in bars 13 to 17 and 20 to 24 the continuo is a single repeated note. Both Homburger and Holloway succeed very well in achieving the ethereal effect - think of Crivelli’s Annunciation in the National Gallery for a visual parallel.
After a short Variatio for continuo the violin is allowed to show off in the ensuing Aria, Variatio and Adagio and Homburger takes full advantage of the opportunity. Her playing here is at least as virtuosic as Holloway’s, if not more so. The continuo is more prominent than on the Holloway recording. I originally wrote ‘more imaginative’: that was my first impression, then I changed my mind for reasons which will be apparent later.
The Virgin notes tell us what instruments were employed for the continuo in each sonata – in this case organ, lirone, harp and lute. The Maya notes do not do so for individual sonatas, but the booklet names the overall ensemble and contains two photographs of the performers with their instruments, including Barry Guy, apparently ubiquitous on Homburger’s recordings, on double bass. Well aware of the incongruity of this instrument amongst a period ensemble – the booklet gives the provenance and dates of these instruments – Homburger seeks to justify its “extra depth and earth-bound dimension which balances the moments when the music seems to soar weightlessly into heaven.” Apparently she has given a number of successful concert performances with Guy’s double-bass as the sole continuo instrument.
Be that as it may, my initial reaction, even before I spotted the double-bass in the line-up, was to find the continuo heavy by comparison with that on the Holloway recording. Then again, that is exactly what Homburger says she wants, and, stickler though I usually am for authenticity, I have to admit that the 16-foot tone works surprisingly well for a time. Much as I hate Bach on the piano, Glenn Gould is the exception. At first I thought the double bass here could be another Gould-type exception, illogical as this is. Not long ago I criticised the use of 16-foot tone in Bach’s organ music. One of the photographs in the booklet shows Homburger standing well forward from the continuo instruments but the rather forward recording makes them sound too prominent, with plucked strings sometimes more to the fore than the violin. This prominence, adding spice at first, eventually produces a degree of listener fatigue; the spice ultimately making the meal somewhat unvaried and indigestible.
How to realise the continuo is a vexed question: the score merely offers a figured bass, with no indication of instrumentation, the performers using whatever was to hand. Some time ago, reviewing Corelli’s Op.5 Violin Sonatas, I discussed the issue of how many instruments should be employed for the continuo. The Naxos recording which I was reviewing employed the harpsichord only, dispensing with the gamba or cello which is often used, and I found the result refreshing. Andrew Manze’s recording of these Biber sonatas uses keyboard continuo only, with an additional cello in the Ascension sonata alone. Given a choice, I prefer the minimalist approach: Camerata Kilkenny’s continuo is rather too much of a good thing and the deep bass rather tiring after the initial novelty has worn off. Not only is the continuo less prominent on the Virgin recording, it is also more varied – eight instruments in varied combinations as against six on the Maya CDs.
No worries about continuo in the concluding Passacaglia, which is for solo violin; Homburger gives an impassioned performance, making the music sound fully the equal of Bach’s solo violin sonatas and partitas … and how about a recording of those works from her? At 9:20 she is a little slower than Holloway’s 8:50, though the recording, more forward on the Maya disc, actually makes her sound less meditative than Holloway. Both tackle the ferocious difficulties of this piece with effortless virtuosity.
If, in the end, I come down in favour of the Virgin set, the slightly more recessed recording (1989, DDD) is an important factor in my decision. Otherwise, it’s swings and roundabouts between the two versions. Tempi for the opening sections are broadly similar – occasionally to within seconds of each other – though Homburger is sometimes faster, sometimes slower in the following movements. Homburger is usually the more immediate and dramatic, for example in her charged account of Sonata X, the Crucifixion which really makes the listener sit up. Holloway stresses the staccato notes which represent the hammering of the nails but otherwise his version of the Crucifixion is rather more in accord with Andrew Manze’s belief that Biber did not intend these sonatas to sound too dramatic but wished them to be effective at a deeper level. That said, Biber did write improvvisata or descriptive music: his Sonata representativa contains striking evocations of different kinds of bird-song and other sonatas represent battles, the night-watchman and peasants’ merrymaking.
The Virgin set ends the first CD with the Crucifixion sonata, beginning CD2 with the Resurrection, which makes a neater division than the Maya arrangement.
Honours are about even as far as the notes in the booklets are concerned. Virgin name the continuo instruments for each sonata, Maya do not; Maya specify the scordatura tuning for each sonata, Virgin do not. Manze’s set includes an appendix in which he explains scordatura and gives several examples. The Virgin booklet is, as usual, minimalist, though promising more detailed notes at their website. If such notes exist, I was unable to find them. I recently found the same problem on the website of the parent company, EMI, trying to find the promised libretto for the Haitink Rosenkavalier: EMI need to do something to make their websites more user-friendly. What it says on the label should be easily found in the tin. The Maya booklet is very thick – taking it in and out of the case has already begun to produce signs of wear and tear – but I could gladly have dispensed with Father Nathanael’s discursive notes on the rosary in exchange for more information about the music. No-one buying this Maya CD on impulse is likely to feel serious regrets – and I’d love to be able fully to commend Maya Homburger’s enterprise in founding and maintaining her own label – but the competition in these works is just too fierce.
Whichever version you choose, you are likely to want to explore Biber further. A good place to start would be with another even more virtuosic set of violin sonatas (1681), an award-winning performance from Romanesca on Harmonia Mundi HMX290 7344-5, 2 CDs for the price of one. You could buy this and the Virgin set of the Mystery Sonatas for not much more than the Maya CD.
Brian Wilson


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