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Heinrich BIBER (1644-1704)
Mensa Sonora, seu Musica instrumentalis [47:18]
Sonata in A major, Chafe 147 [11:53]*
The Purcell 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 Kingdom. DDD

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 obvious.
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 composers.
Mark Sealey


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