Biber’s Rosary Sonatas for violin and continuo are an extraordinary group of works. Their original purpose was as an aid to meditation on various Catholic sacred texts. The fifteen sonatas are divided into three sets of five: the Joyful Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries, and the Glorious Mysteries. This grouping gives rise to the alternative title of the Mystery Sonatas. As Reinhard Goebel points out, these works should really be called the Rosary Suites, being mostly composed of dance movements. In the dedication to the manuscript Biber himself referred to them as “harmonies”, and they are not assigned numbers in the MS. But Sonatas is what everyone calls them, so I will follow suit. The religious underpinning of the music is apparent in its mood, which has a fervour and intensity on a similar level to the Chaconne from the second violin Partita by J.S. Bach.
A large part of the music’s impact is due to Biber’s extensive use of scordatura (non-standard tuning) in the violin part. There are fifteen different tunings used, including the standard G-D-A-E; this is used in only the first sonata “The Annunciation” and the Passacaglia for solo violin that ends the set. Some of these tunings even require the middle strings to be crossed over in the pegbox and at the tailpiece, adding a visual religious symbolism. Scordatura is not an effect unique to Biber, but this set employs it more extensively than any other violin compositions. It adds another layer of difficulty to the already demanding writing of the solo part.
The ensemble in this recording performs in a historically-informed style, using Baroque pitch (A = 415) and quarter-comma meantone temperament. In keeping with this approach Leah Gale Nelson uses little vibrato, using varying bow pressure to shape the phrases. The open strings are tangy, giving a slashing character to the repeated chordal writing. The first sonata sets the tone of rather theatrical fervour that recurs throughout the cycle. The rhythms in the faster movements are sprightly yet unhurried; the pulse in the long movements (for example Sonata no. 4) is very well maintained. The quieter passages, such as the Sarabande in Sonata no. 7, are played with hushed intensity. The bariolage passages in Sonata no. 14 are played in commanding fashion. Nelson meets all of the technical demands of the violin part with ease and sensitivity.
These works can sound a little unvaried when played all at once (something the scordatura, with its need to re-tune for every sonata, would make a lengthy process). Nelson uses two violins, a Klotz dating from 1737 and a Perry Daniels from 1986. The latter instrument has a brighter sound, and adds some variety of tone to the recording. Her continuo colleagues accompany discreetly, making the solo line stand out like a diamond in a velvet case. The theorbo’s lower strings add a pleasantly gravelly sound to the accompaniment. The recording is at quite a high level, but the church acoustic suits the music very well.
Reinhard Goebel’s 1991 recording with Musica Antiqua Cologne was one of the early original instruments traversals of these works. His recording still sounds very fine today, and Goebel brings eloquence as well as virtuosity to the violin part. However Nelson’s playing does not suffer in the comparison, and she brings out the dance rhythms a little more than Goebel. His set adds a cello to the continuo; in his recording also the keyboard instrument alternates between a harpsichord and a chamber organ, whereas Nelson uses just the latter. Goebel’s timings are significantly quicker than Nelson’s at 53:51 and 60:07, a difference of about eleven minutes overall.
Sonata No. 1 in D minor, ‘The Annunciation’ [6:05]
Sonata No. 2 in A major, ‘The Visitation’ [4:56]
Sonata No. 3 in B minor, ‘The Nativity’ [6:24]
Sonata No. 4 in B minor, ‘The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple’ [6:24]
Sonata No. 5 in A Major, "The Finding of Jesus in the Temple" [7:33]
Sonata No. 6 in C minor, "The Agony in the Garden" [7:21]
Sonata No 7 in F Major, "The Scourging at the Pillar" [8:25]
Sonata No 8 in B Flat Major, "The Crowning with Thorns" [6:53]
Sonata No 9 in A minor, "The Carrying of the Cross" [7:23]
Sonata No 10 in G minor, "The Crucifixion" [9:57]
Sonata No 11 in G Major, "The Resurrection" [7:34]
Sonata No 12 in C Major, "The Ascension" [7:24]
Sonata No 13 in D minor, "The Descent of the Holy Spirit" [7:41]
Sonata No 14 in D Major, "The Assumption of Mary" [9:32]
Sonata No 15 in C Major, "The Coronation of Mary" [12:24]
Passacaglia in G minor for Violin solo, “The Guardian Angel” [7:54]