musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Heinrich Ignaz Franz BIBER (1644 - 1704): Sonatae Tam Aris, quam Aulis servientes

Harmonie Universelle
Dir: Florian Deuter, Mónica Waisman

rec: May 31 - June 4, 2021, Niederehe (D), Kirche St. Leodegar
Accent - ACC 24386 (© 2022) (77'22")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Duo I in C (A 126)a; Duo II in C (C 127)a; Duo III in C (C 128)a; Duo IV in C (C 129)a; Duo V in C (C 130)a; Duo VI in C (C 131)a; Duo VII in C (C 132)a; Duo VIII in C (C 133)a; Duo IX in C (C 134)a; Duo X in C (C 135)a; Duo XI in g minor (C 136)a; Duo XII in g minor (C 137)a
Sonata I a 8 in C (C 114); Sonata II a 6 in D (C 115); Sonata III a 6 in g minor (C 116); Sonata IV a 5 in C (C 117); Sonata V a 6 in e minor (C 118); Sonata VI a 5 in F (C 119); Sonata VII a 5 in C (C 120); Sonata VIII a 5 in G (C 121); Sonata IX a 5 in B flat (C 122); Sonata X a 5 in g minor (C 123); Sonata XI a 5 in A (C 124); Sonata XII a 8 in C (C 125)

Hans-Martin Rux-Brachtendorf, Astrid Brachtendorf, trumpet (soloa); Florian Deuter, Mónica Waisman, violin; Wolfgang von Kessinger, Aino Hildebrandt, Christian Goosses, viola; Linda Mantcheva, cello; Dane Roberts, violone; Christoph Sommer, theorbo; James Johnstone, organ

Many composers of the 17th century were in the service of a court. Part of their duties was the composition of music for the entertainment at the court and for special occasions. Music also had a representational purpose. It reflected the power and wealth of a monarch or an aristocrat. Composers could also use music to recommend themselves to a powerful figure, whose service they would like to enter, or to show their appreciation if they had been appointed. In 1671 Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber entered the service of Prince-Archbishop Maximilian Gandolph, Count Khüenberg, in Salzburg. The first music he wrote for his new employer was a set of twelve sonatas for trumpets, strings and basso continuo, which were published in 1676 under the title of Sonatae tam aris, quam aulis servientes - translated: "Sonatas as much for the altar as for the table". With this title he payed tribute to the two roles of the bishop: as a man of the church and as a secular ruler. This means that the sonatas could be used during the liturgy, but also at the court as entertainment, for instance during meals (Tafelmusik).

The twelve sonatas show the influence of the Italian style. They are not formally divided into movements, but consist of various sections following each other attacca. This is the style the theorist Athanius Kircher gave the name of stylus phantasticus. The sonatas are different in construction, also due to the various scorings. The scoring varies from five to eight parts; the basso continuo is treated as one of the parts. Seven sonatas are in five parts: four are for two violins, two violas and basso continuo. In two sonatas one of the violins is replaced by a trumpet, and in one sonata the two violins are joined by two trumpets at the expense of the violas. Three sonatas are in six parts: two violins, three violas and basso continuo. Lastly, the first and last sonatas are in eight parts, for two trumpets, two violins, three violas and basso continuo. Whereas the sonatas attests to the influence of the Italian style, the scoring is different, as in Italian instrumental works the viola did not play an important role. Here the violas - which differ in range - are a kind of 'choir', juxtaposed to the 'upper choir' of violins (and trumpets) and the basso continuo.

The technically most brilliant parts are those of the treble instruments. Biber was arguably the most virtuosic violinist of his time, certainly after the death of Johann Heinrich Schmelzer in 1680, and it is not surprising that the violin parts are very demanding. What is quite remarkable is the virtuosity of the trumpet parts. Peter Holman, in his liner-notes to the recording by The Parley of Instruments (Hyperion, 1985/2000), mentions that nine of the twelve sonatas have been preserved in the music collection of the court of Kroměříž, where Biber was employed before he settled in Salzburg (but does not mention which sonatas). This may indicate that some sonatas were written there. Could these trumpet parts have been inspired by the Kroměříž trumpet virtuoso Pavel Vejvanovský? Holman points out that the Sonata X is written in the key of G minor, very unusual for a piece for trumpet, and that Vejvanovský also composed a piece in this key.

Whatever is the case, Biber's purpose was to write sonatas that were a reflection of the status of his employer, as he explains in his preface: "Since I know how noble an art is music, I was convinced that nothing could be more suitable for the prince and his court: for if one wishes to represent their existence and their structure, Apollo's lyre seems to me to be the best of symbols". And he makes a comparison between music and the state: just as the strings have to obey the playing of the fingers, "the crowned head of the prince must plan and command, the faithful hands of his advisors must support the throne and, finally, the subjects must be in unison and obey without exception".

These sonatas are often played as part of public concerts and included in recorded anthologies. There are also several complete recordings. I have already mentioned the one by The Parley of Instruments. The Purcell Quartet, with Mark Bennett and Michael Laird (trumpets), recorded them for Chandos (1996) and The Rare Fruits Council did the same for Astrée (1998). This new recording has one thing which sets it apart from those I mentioned. The only complete copy of the collection includes twelve duos for trumpets, which reflect the practice of playing fanfares at the court, and in Salzburg this took place during meals. These twelve fanfares may have been used for this purpose. They are not as virtuosic as the trumpet parts in the sonatas, but give us a good impression of how trumpets were used on a daily basis, and the skills of the trumpeters of that time.

In a way their inclusion is a bit inconsistent. As written in the first paragraph, these sonatas could be played both at the court and in church. The performers decided to use a large organ in the basso continuo. That is praiseworthy, and this is another feature that sets this recording apart from the rival versions. However, by using such an organ, the sonatas are treated as pieces for the church, as no court had such a large organ, certainly not in the space where the meal was taken. Let's say that this combination of sonatas and duos show the different sides of the man for whom they were written.

One would like to know how they were played at the time. Given the technical challenges, we may assume that the players at the court and in the church were real virtuosos. The players of Harmonie Universelle certainly are. These are really first-class performances. The technical level of the ensemble is admirable, but what is even more satisfying is the stylistic persuasiveness of these performances. Both the ensemble and the playing of the individual members are excellent and hard to surpass. The contrasts within these sonatas come perfectly off, and there is a strong dynamic shading. This is a perfect example of rhetorical playing. The two trumpeters, Hans-Martin Rux-Brachtendorf and Astrid Brachtendorf, deserve a special mention.

This is the second Biber recording of Harmonie Universelle. I hope that they are going to record other collections from Biber's oeuvre in the near future.

Johan van Veen (© 2024)

Relevant links:

Harmonie Universelle

CD Reviews