A Virtuoso Faceoff

Heinrich Ignaz Franz BIBER
Sonata in A major for Violin and Basso Continuo [11:15]
Georg MUFFAT (1653-1704)
Toccata II for Organ [5:04]
Heinrich Ignaz Franz BIBER
Sonata in C minor for Violin and Basso Continuo [10:53]
Toccata VII for Organ [9:40]
Heinrich Ignaz Franz BIBER
Fantasia in D major for Violin in scordatura and Basso Continuo [7:25]
Passacaglia in G minor for Organ [16:12]
Sonata in D major for Violin and Basso Continuo
Petri Tapio Mattson (Baroque violin); Markku Mäkinen (organ); Eero Palviainen (archlute)
rec. October 2006 and August 2008, Church of St Lawrence, Janakkala.
ALBA ABCD 311 [73:46]

In a kind of High Baroque version of the duelling guitars from the film ‘Deliverance’, Alba have contrived to set Heinrich Biber and Georg Muffat against each other as rivals in a virtual virtuoso set-piece. The evidence for this is perhaps a little thin, but what is true is that both of these almost exact contemporaries worked for a while at the same time in the Court of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg. This period in the 1670s and 1680s gives rise to the not unreasonable speculation that there was a “rivalry that in all probability existed between them for the favour of their influential employer”, presumably with the ambition of ending up as Hofkapellmeister.

Heinrich Biber is probably best known for his ‘Mystery Sonatas’, and the scordatura or re-tuning effects used in his frequently highly virtuoso violin writing. The Sonata in C minor and Fantasia in D major are thought to be early works, with stylistic similarities to works from the early 1680s. Played with archlute accompaniment, and in the case of the Sonata with lute and organ, these have a rich sonority, and are pleasant vehicles for melodic variation and a certain amount of improvisation. Both have variation forms in second or last movement, the Sonata in C minor having a Passagagli adagissimo which allows for maximum exploration of a limited harmonic basis over nearly 10 minutes. The Fantasia in D major is compact, but in its four movements is more adventurous in terms of thematic freedom, using a structure which approaches the ‘church sonata’ as a basis for free-form contrast building. The work with which the disc begins, the Sonata in A major, is thought to be a later piece, written while the composer was in the service of the Prince-Archbishop. All of the features of the earlier works combine here with a deeper experience of composition, with plenty of emphasis on lasting expression and harmonic inventiveness in the adagios, allowing for alternating sections of swift violin extroversion.

Played off against Biber, we have some of the organ inventions of Georg Muffat. Highly skilled as a performer, Muffat was also widely educated as a composer, and able to bring together influences from French, German and Italian styles. His publication Apparatus musico-organisticus published in 1690 is the source for the Toccata pieces here, as well as the Passacaglia in G minor. As you might expect, the toccatas are rich in virtuoso effects, with every kind of compositional technique thrown into the mixture. The Passacaglia employs a rondo technique in which the variations are structured around five repetitions of a basic refrain. At around 16 minutes this is the longest piece on this disc, but holds plenty of intriguing variety and invention, which only occasionally is overtly to do with sheer keyboard dexterity. With the final work on the disc we have the opportunity to compare like with like, Muffat’s Sonata in D major proving very much a match for Biber’s sonatas, and with more surprising harmonies if fewer violinistic fireworks.

This is a very fine disc indeed, with richly recorded instruments in a generous acoustic. The organ of the Church of St. Lawrence in Janakkala is a modern reproduction of the Baroque instrument in St. Cosmae in Stade, North Germany, and very fine it sounds too. There is plenty of rich bass, and the overall sound is rounded and refined. The ‘close to mean temperament’ gives the occasional authentic frisson of marginal tuning, but nothing about this recording or any of its instruments or performances are in any way hair-shirt. Petri Tapio Mattson’s violin playing is very fine, rather in the school of players like John Holloway and Andrew Manze, and not afraid of some extra colour and vibrato where appropriate. The support of both organ and lute is magnificent, resonant and restrained. The SACD sound is particularly fine, bringing what is already a very good stereo recording marvellously to life and adding extra dimensions in particular to the organ, which can otherwise become just a tad muddy through the richness of the lower notes in the CD mix. Whatever your opinion about the concept of the title, these two composers complement each other superbly, and the Sonata in D major by Georg Muffat is quite a discovery. Does bow beat rolled-up score in this game of rock-paper-stok? Who cares, this is sheer Baroque delight.

Dominy Clements

Duet or duel? – who cares, everyone’s a winner here.