Heinrich Ignaz Franz von BIBER (1644-1704)
The Complete Violin Sonatas
Igor Ruhadze (solo violin)
Ensemble Violini Capricciosi
rec. Westvestkerk, Schiedam, The Netherlands, February to July 2016
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 95291 [5 CDs: 284:53]

I was impressed with Igor Ruhadze's survey of Locatelli's music, also for Brilliant Classics. It made me interested to see how he tackled Biber's sonatas. I am glad to say that, whilst it may not be my first choice in this fine music, Ruhadze does turn in a good performance, one which in many ways can be recommended.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber was born in the small Bohemian town of Wartenberg, now Stráž pod Ralskem in the Czech Republic. He worked for Prince Johann Seyfried von Eggenberg in Graz, and then for Prince-Bishop Karl II von Liechtenstein-Kastelkorn. He left the latter position without permission and settled in Salzburg, where he would remain until his death and publish his best known works. Not only a composer but also a virtuoso, Biber is seen as an important figure in the development of the modern technique of violin playing.

Of all his compositions for violin, his Sonaten über die Mysterien des Rosenkranzes or the Mystery (Rosary) Sonatas are the most well known. It is a collection of fifteen sonatas divided into three sections. The final piece The Guardian Angel takes the form, and sometimes the title, of a Passagalia. It is often regarded as one of the earliest pieces of music composed for the solo violin. The sonatas, composed around 1676, were not published until 1905, although they were well known before their publication due to their technical demands.

If I were looking only for a version of the Rosary Sonatas, I would choose that by Gunar Letzbor and Ars Antiqua Austria on Arcana (A 381). It adopts quicker tempi overall, but there is a greater sense of articulation between the differing sections and emotions of the sonatas. I also prefer Letzbor’s performance to that of Andrew Manze for Harmonia Mundi (HMG 507321.22), Manze is only a little slower but with slightly less separation between the sections. Igor Ruhadze, on the other hand, offers what could be described as a safe performance. It is the slowest of the three that I know, but this does not tell the whole story. His performance is well articulated and he is well supported, while his control during the final Passagalia is first-rate.

Discs three and four of this set are occupied by the Sonatae violino solo, a collection of eight sonatas composed in Salzburg around 1681. Unlike in the Rosary Sonatas, Biber only employs the technique of scordatura. In Sonata IV and Sonata VI, the violin is re-tuned to create a different tonal colour. There are similarities between Sonata VI and the Crucifixus section of the Rosary Sonatas, Sonata X. It has been suggested that this could have been intended for inclusion, and possibly even was the first draft of that sonata.

I only have one other version of these sonatas, by Romanesca on Harmonia Mundi (HMG 507344.45). Andrew Manze et al choose to adopt a slightly slower tempo than that of Ruhadze, though the final two sonatas are quite a bit brisker. This leads to a slightly more expressive performance in sonatas I-VI, whilst Ruhadze’s playing sounds more virtuosic at times, whatever your preference. His performance stands up well next to that of Romanesca.

This set is a real winner when it comes to less known sonatas. Sonata Representativa has rightly become widely known, and here I do prefer Romanesca's performance to Ruhadze's. However, it is the inclusion of Sonata in A and the four Violin Sonatas (Minoritenkonvent) that sets this collection apart from the rest. I know well the second sonata of the four, La Pastorella, which appears on the Romanesca set. Here it has been given a much slower reading, nearly one-fourth longer. To me, this helps emphasise the pastoral element of the music.

Overall, even if I prefer the other readings at times, the playing of Igor Ruhadze and the Ensemble Violini Capricciosi is excellent, I particularly like the sound of Felicity Goodwin’s organ playing and the instrument itself. She also wrote the brief but informative booklet notes. This is a useful set and one which I am happy to welcome onto my CD shelves. It may not be my first choice, especially in the Rosary Sonatas. Still, this set sits well next to my other recordings of this music, and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to someone coming to this music anew and seeking an introduction to the world of Biber’s music.

Stuart Sillitoe

Mystery (Rosary) Sonatas 1-15
Passacaglia in G Minor "The Guardian Angel"
Sonatas 1-8, C138-45 (1681) 
Sonata in A major
Sonata in A Major, No. 2, "La Pastorella"
Sonatas C77, 107 & 108
Sonata violino solo representativa in A major

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