Heinrich Ignaz Franz von BIBER (1644-1704)
The Rosary Sonatas (Fifteen sonatas for violin and basso continuo) [97:42]
Passagalia for solo violin [7:41]
Georg MUFFAT (1653-1704)
Sonata in D for violin and basso continuo [12:33]
Ariadne Daskalakis (violin)
Ensemble Vintage Köln [Gerald Hambitzer (harpsichord and organ), Rainer
Zipperling (viola da gamba), Simon Martyn-Ellis (theorbo)]
rec. Sendesaal, Hessischer Rundfunk, Frankfurt, 2013. DSD.
BIS BIS-2096 SACD [70:37 + 61:53]
Also available to download from eclassical.com
(mp3, 16- and 24-bit lossless, with pdf booklet)
Though once regarded as exotic repertoire, Biber’s
Rosenkranz, Rosary or Mystery Sonatas now have a number of recordings
to their name, though some of the best have been deleted or fallen into
the download-only category, notably the Harmonia Mundi recording with
Andrew Manze, Richard Egarr and Alison McGillivray, well worth acquiring
or streaming from Qobuz
Qobuz offer the best download price at £14.99. None of these include
Another version now available for download only offers a surprisingly
restrained set of performances from Reinhard Goebel and Musica Antiqua
Köln (DG Archiv E4316562). Whereas I expected the usual fireworks from
Goebel, I was slightly disappointed. Most economically obtained in
the box Sacred and Profane with fine performances of Biber’s
vocal music by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort – sample/stream/download
There remain, however, a number of very viable accounts from which I
have selected as benchmarks:
- Warner/Virgin 5620622 John Holloway, Davitt Moroney and Tragicomedia.
The least expensive of the recordings on offer at around £8.50 for the
2-CD set and still one of the best.
- Maya Recordings OCD0603 Camerata Kilkenny/Maya Homburger (baroque
violin). I liked this – review
– but tended to prefer the Virgin Classics, not least for its budget
price. Maya Homburger and Barry Guy have also recorded the opening
of the first sonata for ECM, along with music by Guy himself, but I
haven’t heard that recording: the Qobuz version is not available for
- Ondine 1243-2D Sirkka-Lisa Kaakinen and Battalia. I compared
this with the Harmonia Mundi and the budget-price Virgin Classics in
DL News 2014/10. Like Jonathan Woolf – review
– I place this high on the list.
All these recordings capture the spirit of the Catholic counter-reformation
which imbues Biber’s fantastic music – I use the word in its proper
sense of conducive to the imagination, rather than as in colloquial
usage. Late medieval devotional literature had stressed the emotional
identification of the believer with Christ, in his joys and especially
in his sufferings in the Garden of Gethsemane, before the High Priests
and Pilate, as he was scourged and had the crown of thorns – most of
all in suffering on the cross. A good example of this Christ-centered
devotion is to be found in the poem Woefully arrayed, set by
the early Tudor composer William Cornysh (Gimell CDGIM014).
At the counter-reformation such devotion was formalised in the fifteen
sections of the rosary, itself developed by Dominicans in the sixteenth
century from the simpler ‘pair of beads’ which had been used as an aid
to prayer before the reformation and it’s these fifteen sections which
Biber sets in these sonatas. The first five sonatas set the Joyful
Mysteries – Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Presentation in the
Temple and Finding of Jesus in the Temple; the next five are the Sorrowful
Mysteries – Agony in the Garden, Scourging, Crowning with Thorns, Carrying
the Cross and Crucifixion. The finale set comprises the Glorious Mysteries
– Resurrection, Ascension, Descent of the Holy Spirit, Assumption and
Coronation of the Virgin. The work is rounded off with an extra passacaglia
for solo violin, usually known as The Guardian Angel: each of
the sonatas was preceded in the score by an engraving of its subject
and this one has an engraving of an angel.
The sonatas are also preceded in the score by chords representing the
tuning to be employed. For sonatas 1 and 16 the normal violin tuning
is indicated but all the rest have different forms of scordatura
– unconventional tuning, with an especially complex arrangement of crossed
strings prescribed for No.11. The engravings, in miniature form, and
the scordatura tunings are included in the BIS booklet. It must
have been something of an extravagant requirement: to avoid delays in
live performance at least three violins would be required.
The other recordings which I have listed all offer slightly short value
by including just the Biber Rosary Sonatas, though Manze rounds off
the Harmonia Mundi recording with a short commentary. The new BIS recording
follows the Biber work with a 13-minute sonata by Biber’s younger contemporary
The inclusion of the extra work is one unique selling point of the new
recording. Another is the fact that it’s offered as a hybrid SACD and
as a 24-bit download from BIS’s own eclassical.com,
where it’s also available in mp3 and 16-bit form with pdf booklet.
I reviewed the recording from SACDs – the stereo high-definition layer
– but past comparisons have suggested that there is no appreciable difference
between this and the 24-bit download. At the time of writing Amazon
UK were offering the SACDs for £12.99; if they maintain that price,
that beats the cost of the 24-bit download and is only a little more
than the mp3 and 16-bit versions.
I’ve already said that all the recordings that I’ve heard capture the
emotional intensity of the music – a most important feature, though
lightness of touch is also called for in those movements based on faster
dance forms. I dislike judging books by their covers but the photograph
of Ariadne Daskalakis on the back page of the booklet makes her look
very intense – much more intense than her more smiling photograph with
the other performers on page 16. As it happens, that sums up the quality
of the performances – just about the most intense that I’ve heard where
intensity is called for, but the intensity is never overdone and she's
more than sprightly enough in the livelier movements: try track 13 of
CD2, Aria – [Variatio] – Guigue. (NB: that’s not
a typo, nor is Passagalia, track 18 – those are the spellings
in the score.
I hadn’t encountered Ms Daskalakis or the Cologne-based Ensemble Vintage
before, but I see that Mark Sealey thought that she and they had something
interesting to say in their stylish, enjoyable and insightful accounts
of the Handel Violin Sonatas (Naxos – review).
I listened to that recording from classicsonlinehd.com
and find myself not only concurring with MS but a trifle miffed that
he has appropriated some of the words that I would have used for the
new BIS recording.
Dominy Clements also anticipated my finding that she packs ‘plenty of
powerful emotion … both latent and more overtly exposed’ into this new
recording, this time in reviewing Daskalakis on a Naxos recording of
Lutoslawski, Szymanowski and Janácek – review.
Now I must explore her recent recording of Kalliwoda Violin Concertinos
in a forthcoming edition of Download News (CPO 777692-2, with Concerto
Köln/Michael Willems). She really is a very versatile performer.
The final ‘Guardian Angel’ Passacaglia, sometimes performed on its own,
is for solo violin and Daskalakis gives a convincing account of that,
too. At 7:41 she takes the music a good deal faster than Andrew Manze
(10:06) on a 2-CD Harmonia Mundi set of Biber’s other major set of sonatas,
the 1681 collection. I like that set on which Manze is joined by other
members of the group Romanesca; though I now think that Manze makes
something of a meal of the ‘Guardian Angel’, don’t be put off from buying
it – only the one item overlaps with the new BIS. The Harmonia Mundi
comes at budget price for around £11.50 and can be sampled, streamed
and downloaded for £8.59, without the booklet, from Qobuz
That Passacaglia is also included as the final item on an album of music
by Bach and other baroque composers performed by Rachel Podger to which
it gives the title Guardian Angel (Channel Classics CCSSA35513).
At 8:53 she adopts a tempo midway between that of Daskalakis and Manze.
Having praised Rachel Podger’s recordings of the baroque repertoire
many times, I’m nevertheless going for Ariadne Daskalakis on this occasion.
The performance of the Muffat bonus track should make friends for that
composer, too, a colleague of Biber whose music deserves to be better
known and is well performed here.
Reasonably priced SACD players and blu-ray players which will also spin
SACDs are not exactly thick on the ground these days. Unfortunately,
too, only a few brave record companies have hung on to the format but
I would still recommend the outlay on something like the Cambridge Audio
752BD for blu-ray and SACD: I’m still happily using its predecessor,
the 650BD after many years and it’s equally useful for playing blu-ray
audio discs such as the recent complete Solti Ring cycle which
combines high-quality audio with economy of size – one disc in a hardback
book – and cost – review.
In this case the recording quality from the 2-channel SACD layer certainly
reinforces the intensity of the performances. That and the high quality
of the booklet, with excellent notes by Ariadne Daskalakis herself,
combines with the excellence of the interpretations to make this probably
my benchmark for this music in future. I shall not be getting rid of
the Holloway-Moroney-Tragicomedia set, which remains an excellent budget-price
recommendation, with recording still sounding well but with the usual
truncated notes of that series. The impecunious should go for Holloway
but others will be well served by the new recording.
As I was converting this review for publication I noted that two new
recordings had appeared or were about to do so. Lisa Tur Bonet and Musica
Alchemica (Pan Classics PC10329) give a very powerful set of performances
to which I hope to return in another review. I haven't yet heard the
new Channel Classics (CCSSA37315) but, given that Rachel Podger is the
violinist and that she has already given a first-rate performance of
the final ‘Guardian Angel’ Passacaglia, I hope to be able to review