The music of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber is quite popular among violinists and string ensembles as well as audiences. However, as Gunar Letzbor rightly points out in his liner-notes, the interest is a little one-sided: it is the Rosary (or Mystery) Sonatas in particular which attract performances. The music for instrumental ensemble is less frequently played, let alone recorded. The collection of twelve sonatas which is the subject of this disc has been recorded complete only a few times. If the information at the Heinrich Biber Discography
is correct, it has been recorded only three times before.
The collection was published in 1683 and bears the title Fidicinium Sacro-Profanum tam choro, quam foro pluribus fidibus concinnatum et concini aptum.
In translation: "Music sacred and profane for stringed instruments, arranged with art for the court and for the church." Today we tend to make a clear distinction between the sacred and the profane, but that was not the case in the pre-romantic era. There are many examples of secular music adapted to sacred texts without fundamental changes, such as Bach's secular cantatas. Some German hymns were originally written to a secular text. This explains why these sonatas include polyphonic sections in stile antico
, but also sections with a theatrical character. The sense of contrast is emphasized by the relative shortness of each section. The Sonata III in d minor
, for instance, takes less than three minutes in this recording, but comprises no fewer than six different sections. Although there are no names of dances, some have the form of a dance.
The set is divided into two halves. The first six sonatas are in five parts, with two violins, two violas and violone plus basso continuo. The remaining sonatas are in four parts, but not - as one would probably expect - for two violins and one viola, but the other way round. In the German-speaking world it was quite common to give relatively greater weight to the lower parts. From Germany we know sonatas with even three or four parts for violas or viole da gamba. In the first half the four string instruments are treated on strictly equal terms. It is often hardly possible to tell the two violins apart, also because they often imitate each others motifs. In the second part the violin has been given a little more prominence. Even so, these twelve sonatas are fundamentally ensemble pieces.
The playing time of this disc is rather short. In comparison to other recordings the individual sonatas are also rather short, probably due to a different approach to repeats. In the score which I found on the internet I could not see any indications that some sections have to be repeated. This subject is not mentioned in Letzbor's liner-notes. With these performances you can't go wrong. The contrasts are very well worked-out, and the ensemble is immaculate. The theatrical episodes in particular are given more weight than I remember from other performances I have heard over the years. These compelling sonatas are performed by musicians who have a thorough knowledge of the composer and his historical context.
Johan van Veen