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Heinrich Ignaz Franz BIBER (1644 - 1704): Requiem

Vox Luminis; Freiburger BarockConsort
Dir: Lionel Meunier

rec: Feb 2019, Beaufays (B), Église Saint-Jean l'Évangéliste
Alpha - 665 (© 2020) (72'08")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score Biber

Christoph BERNHARD (1628-1692): Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener; Tribularer si nescirem; Heinrich Ignaz Franz BIBER: Requiem in f minor (C 8); Johann Joseph FUX (1660-1741): Omnis terra adoret (K 183); Sonata ŕ 4 in g minor (K 347); Johann Michael NICOLAI (1629-1685): Sonata ŕ 6 in a minor

[VL] Victoria Cassano, Perrine Devillers, Sara Jäggi, Cressida Sharp, Zsuzsi Tóth, Stefanie True, soprano; Alaxander Chance, Jan Kullmann, alto; Robert Buckland, Philippe Froeliger, tenor; Lionel Meunier, Stebastian Myrus, bass
[FBC] Anna Schall, Marleen Leicher, cornett; Simen Van Mechelen, Miguel Santos Sevillano, Joost Swinkels, sackbut; Carles Cristobal, dulcian; Veronika Skuplik, Petra Müllejans, violin; Christa Kittel, Werner Saller, viola; Hille Perl, viola da gamba; James Munro, violone; Lee Santana, lute; Torsten Johann, organ

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber has become best-known for his instrumental music, and especially his pieces for solo violin, such as the so-called 'Mystery Sonatas'. In comparison, his sacred music is far less known. The exception is the large-scale Missa Salisburgensis, which previously was attributed to Orazio Benevoli. This work was written for performance at the Cathedral in Salzburg, where he worked since 1670 and was appointed Kapellmeister in 1684. For this cathedral he composed his sacred music, including the Requiem in f minor which is the main work of the disc reviewed here.

It is one of two settings of the Requiem mass from Biber's pen. It is scored for five solo voices, five ripieno voices, five-part strings, three sackbuts and basso continuo. That is to say: that is the scoring given in the liner-notes. Philipp Picket, in his recording of the Requiem, lists also two bassoon parts. As I don't assume that Vox Luminis has omitted any part of the scoring, we may assume that these two parts are identical. Pickett also mentions that the work has been preserved in 29 parts. From that he concludes that Biber has explored the spatial possibilities of the Cathedral, by dividing the ensemble into several choirs. That seems not out of the question, but it is impossible to state that as a matter of fact. The presence of 29 parts may suggest, though, that Biber had a somewhat larger ensemble in mind than that which is involved in this recording of Biber's Requiem.

The work is divided into a number of sections, which are alternately sung by solo voices and tutti. The three sackbuts have no independent parts, but rather double the alto, tenor and bass voices. Notable is the part of the first violin, which now and then takes an obbligato role. The work includes various musical figures which illustrate the text. Polyphony and homophony alternate. The use of the key of F minor was very common at the time: it was often used for music of a lamenting character.

As this is a rather concise work, performers have to decide what to perform in addition. One could select further pieces by Biber or - what I would have liked - pieces by Andreas Hofer, Biber's predecessor as Kapellmeister, especially as Hofer's music is little known. However, here the performers have selected music that has little or no connection to Biber, as Jérôme Lejeune admits in his liner-notes: "Their paths probably never met". However, he sees a connection in that all four of them mixed the polyphonic tradition of the Renaissance with the modern trends from Italy. He is certainly right there, but many others did the same, and that makes the selection of pieces by Christoph Bernhard, Johann Michael Nicolai and Johann Joseph Fux rather arbitrary. Whereas Fux worked in Vienna and wrote music for the Catholic liturgy, as did Biber, the other two are from the northern and Lutheran part of Germany.

That said, I am quite happy with the selection of the pieces from a musical point of view. All three are not that well-known and not very well represented on disc. It is only recently that Fux has started to be reassessed as a composer, whereas before he was mainly seen as the theorist, the author of the book Gradus ad Parnassum. His oeuvre is sizeable, but only a small part is available on disc. Here we get two pieces: one of his many works for the Catholic liturgy, Omnis terra adoret, in which a verse from Psalm 103 is extended with free poetry, and the Sonata in g minor in four parts, for violin, cornett, sackbut, dulcian and basso continuo. The latter scoring is a clear reference to the past, but not surprising, given the taste of the Habsburg court, where Fux was Kapellmeister.

Christoph Bernhard was the main pupil of Heinrich Schütz. He also was in Rome, where he was the pupil of Giacomo Carissimi and where he learnt a thing or two about the Italian style. He worked in Dresden and Hamburg. He is represented here with a piece on a German text and one in Latin. This reflects the liturgical practice in Lutheran Germany: the vernacular was the standard, but Latin was still very much part of the liturgy, as we also know from Bach's Leipzig. Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener mixes the canticle of Simeon with free poetry. Tribularer si nescirem is an anonymous liturgical text, also known in settings by, for instance, Palestrina, de Rore and Gesualdo. Both pieces are for two choirs of voices and instruments; the latter play colla voce.

Johann Michael Nicolai was a member of the chapel of Duke Julius Heinrich of Saxe-Lauenburg, and during this time he regularly performed at the court of Margrave Christian Ernst of Brandenburg-Bayreuth. He dedicated his first volume of instrumental music to the Margrave. At the time of publication he was already a member of the chapel of the court in Stuttgart. There he played the violone, alongside other instruments. His Sonata ŕ 6 is part of an important collection of chamber music, the so-called Partiturbuch Ludwig, dating from 1662. This sonata is scored for two violins, three violas and violone. The relative importance of lower strings is a feature of German instrumental music of the 17th century.

Although I could imagine a larger ensemble in Biber's Requiem, the musical result of this somewhat modest line-up leaves nothing to be desired. The advantage of a smaller line-up is a better intelligibility of the text, which is in the centre of Vox Luminis's interest anyway. The individual singers deliver excellent performances, and the ensemble is perfect, as always. The collaboration with a selection from the Freiburger Barockorchester is very fruitful and results in a good balance between voices and instruments. Only the first violin is a bit overshadowed by the sackbuts. The other pieces receive equally fine performances. It is to be hoped that the oeuvre of the three composers is going to be thoroughly explored in the near future. I am sure they all hold some nice treasures.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

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Freiburger BarockConsort

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