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Heinrich Ignaz Franz BIBER (1644-1704)
Rosary Sonatas (c. 1676)
Alice Piérot (violin)
Les Veilleurs de Nuit
rec. June 2002, Chapelle de l’Hospital Notre-Dame de Bon Secours, Paris, France ALPHA 038 [51:36 + 68:08]
Biber’s cycle of Rosary Sonatas consists of fifteen violin sonatas named after the fifteen prayers of the Rosary in Roman Catholicism. The set opens with the Annunciation, follows the life and death of Christ and ends with the heavenly coronation of the Virgin Mary. A final passacaglia for unaccompanied violin brings the set to sixteen. Biber composed this unusual program using a truly baroque system of numerology.
More startling is the music itself, which is at various times bold, slashing, contemplative, sorrowful, and jubilant. These many moods are achieved through imposing technical demands, including scordatura, a retuning of the violin to create lighter or darker sounds, and to facilitate novel multiple stops. “Normal” tuning holds only for the opening sonata and the concluding passacaglia. This is extravagantly baroque music, not for the diffident performer.
A generation ago, recordings of Biber’s cycle were special events. It is remarkable that we now live in a time when some twenty-six recordings of these remarkable works are on offer. This growth partly reflects increased interest in Biber the composer, for whom we now have nearly two hundred recordings. It also reflects changing musical performance practice, with historically-informed fiddlers presenting their performances of these dazzling pieces as calling cards.
There is a lot of variation among performances, beginning with the accompaniment. Some choose a minimal keyboard and cello or even keyboard alone. Others vary the palette, with up to eight different continuo instruments in varying combinations, sometimes including such unexpected voices as a trombone.
Accompanying Piérot are viola da gamba, theorbo, and claviorganum. This seems a relatively modest array, but can make quite a racket when appropriate. Piérot herself is forceful enough, falling mid-way among interpretations which range from rather polite (Andrew Manze) to fanciful and aggressive (Gunar Letzbor and Riccardo Minasi). Listeners who enjoy a more fevered approach should look elsewhere, but many will find satisfaction in her even-tempered take on this music. The scourging of Christ lacks the fierce blows heard in some other versions, and in general, her strength may be in the quieter moments of the cycle. Yet her treatment of the Ascension sonata is quite exciting.
Piérot takes two hours to play the cycle, which is a typical length. The recorded sound is fine, and the notes by Pierre Pascal are exceptionally informative. They cast doubt on whether this music is so programmatic as we presume, suggesting that it is more about technique and less about Jesus.