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RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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Heinrich Ignaz Franz von BIBER (1644-1704) Missa Alleluja [31:15] Nisi Dominus [13:27] Pastorella in A [06:07] Hic est panis [08:17]
St. Florianer Sängerknaben (Josef Pascal Auer, Simon Paul Bernhard, Daniel Mandl (treble)), Markus Forster, Alois Mühlbacher (alto), Markus Miesenberger, Bernd Lambauer (tenor), Gerhard Kenda, Ulfried Staber (bass)
Ars Antiqua Austria/Gunar Letzbor (violin)
rec. August 2014, Stadtpfarrkirche, Neunkirchen, Austria; February 2015, the St Florian Monastery, Austria. DDD
Texts and translations included ACCENT ACC24325 [59:08]
Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber is best known for his compositions for his own instrument, the violin. In particular his so-called Mystery sonatas are frequently performed and recorded. They have achieved something like the same status as Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. Far less known is the fact that he also composed a large number of sacred vocal works, mostly for the cathedral in Salzburg, where he worked from 1670 until his death. The vocal music was the result of his being appointed deputy Kapellmeister in 1679; five years later he succeeded Andreas Hofer as Kapellmeister.
Biber's best-known sacred work is the Missa Salisburgensis, which for a long time was attributed to Orazio Benevoli, but is now generally acknowledged as being from Biber's pen. It is the most opulent specimen of a genre, known as Festmesse (festive mass), which was especially popular in Austria. In 2013 Gunar Letzbor recorded another example of such a mass, Georg Muffat's Missa in labore requies (review). Music was one of the main avenues of representation. The splendour of a composition and its performance reflected the splendour of a court, a city or a church. If a nobleman was able to raise a large ensemble of singers and instrumentalists, he was somebody. The Missa Alleluja is scored for 36 vocal and instrumental forces. Whereas the Missa Salisburgensis was composed for a special occasion (the celebration of the 1100th anniversary of the founding of the archbishopric of Salburg by St Rupert), it is not known whether there was a special reason for the composition of this mass.
Letzbor states that it was written between 1690 and 1698. The original score and parts have been lost; the present recording is based on copies preserved at the abbey at Kremsmünster in Upper Austria. The 36 voices are divided into four groups. The first is a vocal choir of eight concerti (solo voices) and eight ripieni; in this recording Letzbor has opted for a performance with eight solo voices (the treble parts are shared by three singers). The three other choirs are entirely scored for instruments. The second comprises strings, the third six trumpets and timpani and the fourth two cornetts and three sackbuts. In addition the score mentions a violone, a theorbo and an organ.
The Kyrie immediately sets the tone. Instead of a prayer it is a statement: it opens with fiery chords of the tutti. It makes a strong impression, thanks to the brass. The Christe section is only a little more restrained. Making a lasting impression is more important in works like this than text expression. Even so, there are several moments when the text is eloquently depicted, such as in the Crucifixus. However, there is little intimacy here, with the score includes parts for trumpets.
The remaining items in the programme are very different, not only in scoring but also in the realm of text expression. Nisi Dominus, a setting of Psalm 126 (127), is a fine example of Biber’s skills in this department. Letzbor, in his liner-notes, explains the connection between text and music in the various sections of this piece. The bass and the violin are equal partners; the title even mentions the violin first: violino, basso con continuo a doppio. The violin opens with an introduction and in the first section it imitates the signals of a trumpet. In the second section it is in particular the word “doloris” (pain) which is emphasized by musical means. In the verse “Sicut sagittae” (as arrows in the hand of the mighty) the violin imitates arrows whizzing through the air. The Amen is dominated by counterpoint and Letzbor also notices the influence of folk music from the Alps. This work is a masterpiece and technically demanding for both the voice and the violin.
The latter is on its own, albeit supported by the basso continuo, in the Pastorella, a piece which is part of a large collection of violin music preserved at the Vienna Minors Convent. This is not what we probably expect from a piece of pastoral music: a quiet tempo in siciliano rhythm. Although it includes some moments which refer to a lullaby, it is mostly a musical illustration of a nativity play, such as the angels entering accompanied by fanfare-like figures, a drone illustrating the rural environment, dance rhythms depicting the joy of the shepherds and so on. Such musical illustrations were quite popular at the time, and composers like Biber and Schmelzer loved to write this kind of stuff.
The disc ends with a motet which has been found in the archive of the Berlin Singakademie which returned to Berlin in 2001. Hic et panis is a motet for the Holy Sacrament: “This is the bread which comes down from heaven. If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever”. Despite comprising only these two lines, the piece takes more than eight minutes. That is largely due to - again - the prominent role of the violin, which has a demanding part which includes frequent double stopping. Moreover, Biber makes use of the technique of scordatura, which means that the normal tuning of the violin is adapted to the tonality of the composition. Biber used it frequently, for instance in the above-mentioned Mystery Sonatas.
Most pieces on this disc are little-known; only the Nisi Dominus belongs among Biber's better-known pieces. I heard the Missa Alleluja for the first time on the radio in a live performance under Letzbor’s direction at the Utrecht Early Music Festival. It made a huge impression, but the performance took place in a modern concert hall. I wondered how it would fare in a large church, such as the Stadtpfarrkirche in Neunkirchen in Austria, where this recording took place. Letzbor has proved before that he is very well able to handle the problematic acoustic of a reverberant venue. It seems that this recording was also made during a live performance, which certainly makes the acoustic easier to deal with as the audience has a moderating effect on the reverberation. Letzbor’s tempi are modest and the articulation in the vocal and instrumental parts is very clear. Under other acoustical circumstances one would consider it exaggerated, but here it is just right.
Letzbor always has very fine singers at his disposal. The top lines are sung by trebles from the St Florian Sängerknaben. They show that there are still trebles around who are able to sing solo parts in baroque music. The argument of some conductors that such singers are not available anymore, doesn’t hold water. For many years Letzbor has enjoyed a good partnership with this choir, which has resulted in some outstanding recordings. The other singers are also excellent. Gerhard Kenda deserves special mention for his performances in the two solo pieces. He delivers a very expressive interpretation and also has the tessitura which these pieces require. Often basses lack power at the lower end of their range, but that is not the case here. Letzbor himself is impressive in the violin parts, and the Pastorella is a brilliant example of a truly theatrical performance.