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Decca Phase 4
Mensa Sonora, seu Musica instrumentalis [47:18]
Sonata in A major, Chafe 147 [11:53]*
Quartet: (Catherine Mackintosh (violin)*; Catherine Weiss
(violin); Richard Boothby (violone); Robert Woolley (harpsichord));
Jane Rogers (viola)
rec. 1-3 October, 2006, St. Bartholomew’s Church, Orford, Suffolk, United
If recent interest in Biber, as evidenced by a steady stream
of CDs, constitutes a ‘revival’, it has mainly concentrated
on his choral music. On the other hand the Mystery Sonatas have
been extensively recorded. Indeed there are more than a handful
of outstanding recordings of Biber’s Masses. Now along comes
this splendid record of ensemble music from the Purcell Quartet,
whose stature continues to grow.
A violinist himself, Biber spent most of his adult career
in the service of the Archbishop of Salzburg. In addition to
the Masses and instrumental music of various kinds, Biber composed
many dramatic works but only the opera, Arminio, has
survived. It’s salutary and frustrating to know that Biber’s
output was as extensive as it was. His is a special, sonorous,
sensitive, self-confident and particularly expressive art comprising
works of beauty, surprising subtlety and restraint with each
new hearing offering something different and stimulating.
By the end of the sixteenth century, a couple of generations
before Biber, the practice of writing collections of dance music
(for court) had pretty much settled on compositions for strings.
Here Biber writes for cembalo, which had a more active part
than doubling the bass, violin, two violas and violone - probably
a bass violin, in this case, and not a viola da gamba. The combination
was beginning to be replaced by two violins and viola and that
practice is followed on this recording.
The Purcell Quartet has the gift of producing a particularly
unified sound. The beauty of each member’s tone is not lost
and is there to be enjoyed, as in the first movement of the
Sonata in A major. Yet the unison effect achieved by musicians
so well in tune with one another adds to the pleasing and compelling
texture of these unpretentious yet delightful pieces.
They’re essentially dance suites, then; six of them each
containing the familiar six or seven movements. Biber also uses
less well-known forms such as the Gagliarda, Cantario, Amener and Trezza.
Spotted with humour, they also make use of counterpoint and
some unexpected turns such as in the finale of the sixth suite
which replaces the expected G minor ending with C minor.
Mensa Sonora means ‘Harmonious Table’ and was music composed for aristocratic dining.
The diners present during this Tafelmusik would have
missed much had they allowed knives and forks to drown the melodies,
rhythms and harmonies which Biber produced. These are by and
large upbeat pieces, but not in any way superficial or slight.
One is struck particularly by the high degree of virtuosity – but
to a purpose. The violins in particular carry forward the momentum,
linger on the tender and underpin the subtle and perhaps less
The Sonata in A major is equally virtuosic, making use
of both improvisatory parts and a theme and variations. It makes
an appropriate foil to the Mensa Sonora and is placed
between the latter’s third and fourth suites on this recording.
The players of the Purcell Quartet have approached this
music at just the right level. It is dance music and
it allows high levels of virtuosity. If this is not interpretative
virtuosity, it nevertheless serves to add to our enjoyment.
The sounds and textures which Biber expects are exciting – and
excitingly reproduced here by these five soloists playing as
a unit. There is an element of evangelism for the Biber corpus
but that never gets in the way of their suave, straightforward
and inspired music-making. If you have liked other of what you’ve
heard of Biber and/or want to explore this specific corner of
his output, the Purcell Quartet is unlikely to fail in convincing
you that Biber deserves a place at the head table of mid-Baroque
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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