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Heinrich Ignaz von BIBER (1644-1704)
Rosenkranz-Sonaten (ca 1674/78)
CD 1
The Joyful Mysteries
Sonatas I-V [34:26]
The Sorrowful Mysteries
Sonatas VI-X [37:56]
CD 2
The Glorious Mysteries
Sonatas XI-XV [42:58]
Passacaglia for solo violin [8:46]
Riccardo Minasi (violin)
Bizzarrie Armoniche
rec. 27-29 September 2005; 12-15 January 2006, Sala ‘Gustav Mahler’, Centro Convegni Grand Hotel di Dobbiacco (Italy)
ARTS 477358 [73:16 + 51:44]
Experience Classicsonline

Even a brief rummage through these pages will show you that there are a fair few versions of these works available on CD. My main comparison is the highly esteemed 1990 release performed by John Holloway and Tragicomedia on Virgin Classics.

As a rule of thumb, Riccardo Minasi is more inclined to dig deeper in search of the dramatic in this music. Just taking the extremes of contrast in the opening Annunciation we get far more passionate extremes and a more brusquely narrative style than with Holloway, whose greater restraint is more concerned with the elegance and beauty in the music. This carries through to the accompaniment, which on the whole is a model of refined sonority with Tragicomedia, where Bizzarrie Armoniche keenly follow Minasi’s lead into more wilder realms. This may at first seem harder to live with, but the upshot is that, for instance, the emotional downturn with the minor keys of The Sorrowful Mysteries and the move towards the grand dramas of The Glorious Mysteries both have a more heightened character, a more deeply extended concave parabola in this new recording.

In an interview conducted with Riccardo Minasi by Nicoletta Sguben in the booklet, it soon becomes apparent that Minasi knows pretty much all there is to know about these pieces. He goes into the symbolism hidden in some of the numerology – the number of bars for instance, into that which might hide in the shifts in tuning, and in the hypothesis put forward by Davitt Moroney of the literal programmatic content of the music. I was interested to see that Minasi is in no way dogmatic about any of this; he just points out the possibilities in all of these things and indicates how they might provide added interpretative depths or alternatives. Dan Brown might have a field day with some of these aspects of The Mystery Sonatas, but my impression is that Riccardo Minasi is more determined to get the best out of the music on its own terms, being aware of the symbolism, but allowing others to sweat and strive for proofs of its meanings.

Heinrich Biber was a violin virtuoso who revelled in the effects he could obtain from his instrument. You only have to listen to something like his crazy Sonata Representativa to hear some of the results of this. Almost any composer’s ultimate goal is the representation of the deeply spiritual in music, and this certainly would have been the case in Biber’s time. For me there is no mystery in the Rosenkranz Sonaten other than the sense of awe when discovering anew the qualities in the music – both as individual movements, and as an all-embracing whole. Biber knew exactly what he was doing with the transition from the sheer intimacy of the final bars of Sonata V, ‘Jesus in the Temple, and the first of ‘The Sorrowful Mysteries’, Sonata VI, ‘The Agony in the Garden’, where the both composer and musicians make it easy to imagine a soulful figure torturing himself on the Mount of Olives.

I am full of admiration for Riccardo Minasi’s playing. He can be lyrical and tender as well as pulling no punches with the more dramatic, or what he sees as the more dramatic music. There may be times when you might feel that his approach errs on the side of relentlessness, but this is all part of the package – the violin treated as symphonic orchestra as well as soloist. A way of making some judgements on this is to zap straight on to the incredible Passacaglia for solo violin at the end. Minasi gives the piece every last drop of expressive contrast, measuring each variation with spacious majesty – dropping to pianississimo on occasion, and reviving triumphantly from the depths. I also like his way with ornamentation throughout this set. This is and should be very much an incidental aspect of the music, but with Minasi it carries its own emotional impact and weight rather than providing a vehicle for technical display – sometimes just a little extra emphasis on the vibrato, but conveying a rainbow of extra colours and meanings. John Holloway’s timing for this piece is as good as identical to Minasi’s, but he somehow seems to propel the music forward more swiftly, being more inclined to seek a more stable tempo in the line in the repeating bass pattern, Minasi flexes the time with a good deal of rubato while not losing the essential lines of the music. Holloway’s playing is truly excellent of course, but less laden with blood, sweat and tears than Minasi’s. Another recording of the Passacaglia I’ve greatly admired in the past is that of Andrew Manze on Harmonia Mundi (HMX 2907225) from 1994, but listening again it seems he’s if anything more laid back than Holloway, and certainly now seeming more than a little bland up against this new recording.

I have to bow to my colleague Jonathan Woolf in terms of comparative examples for Biber’s Rosenkranz Sonaten, but would have to say that this new recording must be a strong contender for anyone’s collection. Minasi and his colleagues make a strong a case as I’ve heard for the narrative content in this music, with plenty of genuine suffering, some psychological intrigue if you want to look for it, and a great deal of sheer joy in the playing. There may in fact be too much ‘going on’ for some people’s tastes, but I enjoy this head-on approach, which can have the horror aspect of a biblical scene by someone like Hieronymous Bosch, as well as those more civilised gents such as Poussin and Caravaggio. The recording is pretty stunning as well, with a good balance between solo and accompaniment, and a very natural and realistic sense of space in full SACD mode.

Dominy Clements


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