It’s been some time since I last reviewed a disc of Biber’s Mystery Sonatas, but there was a time when it seemed I reviewed nothing else. Elizabeth Wallfisch
, Pavlo Beznosiuk
, the first nine sonatas played by Monica Huggett
, and Andrew Manze
were frequent presences, whose performances gave great pleasure and musical succour. Add John Holloway with Davitt Moroney, Stephen Stubbs and Erin Headley on Virgin Veritas VBD5620622, Walter Reiter and Cordaria on Signum, the classic Reinhard Goebel and Cologne Musica Antiqua still around on Archiv, and several other more recent entrants and one finds that all these years after Edward Melkus’s pioneering 1967 set, we have a rich variety of approaches, accompaniments, colours - a true catholicity of responses to these towering Sonatas.
The latest recording to come my way is that of Sirkka-Liisa Kaakinen-Pilch, accompanied by Battalia – keyboards, lutes (and guitar), violone and organ. Like Huggett, Kaakinen-Pilch is an incisive performer, preferring to take strong, directional tempi. She is truly elegant in No.1, gliding fluently but not acerbically, fully indulging the off-beat string accompaniment in the central movement of No.3, which vests the music with such vitality, and playing the Chaconne (No.4) very well. Her narrative is much faster than Holloway’s and her cumulatively powerful, dramatic playing is also tauter than Manze’s more overtly spiritual reading. There is some especially supple accompaniment in the finale of No.5 and some expansive harmonic lurches in the central panel of No.6. Her chords are strong and well defined in the finale of this sonata, where the accompanying string body’s responses are limpid and meek in their expressive reply. She reserves tauter attacks and more biting articulation for such passages as the opening of No.7 but bleaches her tone almost white – with commensurately limited dynamics – in the second of its two movements. It is strikingly done.
The birdlike decorative passages of No.11 are beautifully realised, with each instrument well balanced, the military fanfares of No.12’s central movement being etched with a similarly well characterised and vivid quality. The heightened expressive tension the sonatas generate is not downplayed, either, as one can easily hear in the opening of No.13, and the guitar’s gentle qualities vest No.14 with a beautifully realised dying away quality.
Of the other recordings cited Kaakinen-Pilch is closest to Wallfisch and Huggett in her sense of the music’s dramatic movement and decorative aliveness, though she is much less abrasive than the former. Manze’s approach is the most refined, spiritual and obviously elevated. There’s not one recording that is less than exciting, and often profound but Kaakinen-Pilch’s splendidly realised contribution can be placed very high in the discography of the work.