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Heinrich BIBER (1644-1704)
The Mystery Sonatas for solo violin and continuo (1673)
CD 1 [73:16]
Sonata 1 (The Annunciation) [5:03]
Sonata 2 (The Visitation) [6:17]
Sonata 3 (The Nativity) [5:59]
Sonata 4 (The Presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple) [8:44]
Sonata 5 (The Twelve-Year old Jesus in the Temple) [8:23]
Sonata 6 (The Agony in the Garden) [7:47]
Sonata 7 (The Scourging of Jesus [9:21]
Sonata 8 (The Crown of Thorns) [5:54]
CD 2 [51:44]
Sonata 9 (Jesus carries his cross) [5:51]
Sonata 10 (The Crucifixion) [9:03]
Sonata 11 (The Resurrection) [7:30]
Sonata 12 (The Ascension) [8:04]
Sonata 13 (The descent from the cross) [8:07]
Sonata 14 (The Assumption of the Virgin) [7:19]
Sonata 15 (The Crowning of the Virgin) [11:30]
Passacaglia in G minor for solo violin [8:46]
Riccardo Minasi (violin)
Bizarrie Armoniche
rec. 27-29 September 2005, 12-15 January 2006, Sala Mahler, Cento Convegni Grand Hotel di Dobbiaco, Italy. DDD
ARTS 477358 [73:16 + 51:44]


Experience Classicsonline

We have been very fortunate that these amazing sonatas have in the last few years been recorded by about half a dozen extremely talented violinists who in addition to being virtuosos are highly committed to ‘early music’. One such, the 30 year old Italian Riccardo Minisi is featured here. There have been other recent recordings by the equally superb Andrew Manze, John Holloway, Reinhard Goebel and Walter Reiter but I am not here attempting a comparative study.

The ‘Mystery Sonatas’ consist of fifteen short works for violin and continuo. Their inspiration lies in the so-called fifteen Mysteries of the Virgin which are sometimes directly programmatically portrayed and which are sometimes somewhat elusive. They divide into three groups of five. The Joyful mysteries are based on episodes in the early life of Jesus, the Nativity for example; the middle group are the sorrowful mysteries like ‘The Crown of Thorns’, and the final group are the Glorious mysteries which continue the story from the Resurrection to the Assumption and then to the Coronation of the Virgin. The work is capped off by a grand unaccompanied Passacaglia for violin. The whole sequence lasts over two hours and is therefore on two discs. I wonder if Biber intended the work to be played, as it were, in one sitting.

Biber composed these works for Archbishop Max Gandolph. The composer pointed out in his dedication that “Gandolph was strongly in favour of the Rosary in Salzburg”. The cycle was used during the Rosary devotions during the months of September and October. As the faithful walked in procession they would have listened to appropriate biblical passages and commentaries and also to Biber’s music. And, a curious concept for us is, as Raffaele Mellace remarks in his excellent booklet notes “the dance forms which underpin the entire collection would have inspired strict meditation”. The original manuscript comes complete with 15 elegant roundels which are relevant to the subject of each sonata.

Each sonata requires a different violin tuning called Scordatura or as the booklet calls it ‘cross-tunings’ these are listed in the booklet under each sonata heading. Some are quite extraordinary. But what makes these sonatas virtuoso compositions for the solo performer - and I am sure for the composer - is that once re-tuned, the notation remains as usual, to correspond with continuo harmony. This is Scordatura and many violinists dread it, because they are effectively always transposing. The reason for some of these tunings is quite obvious and indeed programmatic. For example the beautiful ‘Ascension’ sonata has a C major tuning, g-c-g-d. Contrast that with the 9th Sonata ‘Jesus Carries His Cross’ which is in A minor, tuned to straining point c-e-a-e - in other words all strings raised a fourth giving a somewhat strangled effect.

But there are other programmatic elements in the music. The ‘Resurrection’ sonata is the only one in a continuous movement. It includes a Latin hymn tune suitable for Easter Day ‘Surrexit Christus Hodie’. It begins in total stillness – the dawn of Easter morning. The free recitativic tempo gradually builds so that in the brightness of the dawn sun the empty tomb is displayed; then enters, at first quietly, the Choral melody. Incidentally the tuning for this sonata is so odd that it creates a very unearthly effect. In the ‘Ascension’ sonata the soloist is expected with his terrifically difficult double-stoppings to imitate a choir of trumpets in the ‘Aria tubicinium’. In ‘The Crucifixion’ Sonata the rending of the veil over ‘the holy of holies’ is vividly portrayed by a jagged variation and some fierce broken-chord passages.

Most of the sonatas have several movements and include dance titles. Some have arias followed by Variations which Biber sometimes calls Doubles and sometimes Variations. I think Doubles can be heard as simpler or less elaborate variations. The dances include ‘Allemans’ and ‘Courrentes’ which are slipped, curiously into movements like ‘The Visitation’ and even into ‘The Carrying of the Cross’, presumably on the grounds of ‘why should the devil have the best tunes?’

Praise cannot be too high for Riccardo Minasi and the wonderfully named Bizzarie Armoniche, not inappropriate for Biber. I especially like the way in which the continuo instrumentation is varied from sonata to sonata. For example the lirone is preferred sometimes to the theorbo. The organ is sometimes preferred to the ’cembalo’. There is also an instrument simply called a ‘bassett’ a rather coarse string bass which sounds like the comb and paper. The harp is used for flourishes and for bass lines … listen to the ‘Ascension’ sonata: it sounds in places like moments in Battaglia.

To make briefly a comparison with another equal fine recording, Walter Reiter with Cordaria on Signum (SIGCD 021). They supply a more generous accompanying booklet with the tunings more clearly set out and with the little roundels mentioned above illustrated. The individual dances within a sonata are separately tracked and some of the score is even reproduced. However, both players are in top form and I cannot find fault with either. One may occasionally prefer speeds or ornamentations in one or the other. For instance I love Minasi’s quiet interpretation and gentle touch in Sonata 13 for ‘The Descent of the Holy Spirit’, but these mostly are not significant.

This new version of The Mystery Sonatas will give much pleasure and is well worth searching out. The blend, sensitivity and recorded balance are immaculate and the whole project is beautifully presented.

Gary Higginson

see also Review by Dominy Clements


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