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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 (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 from, or streaming from Qobuz or  Qobuz offer the best download price at £14.99. None of these include the booklet.

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 from Qobuz.

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 streaming.
- 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 Georg Muffat.

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, 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 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 (HMG507344/45).

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 that too.

Brian Wilson

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