musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"A Requiem for Biber"

Gabrieli Consort & Players
Dir: Paul McCreesh
rec: (©) 2004, Tonbridge (Kent), Tonbridge School Chapel
Archiv – 00289 474 7142 (81'06")

anon: Praeludium; Praeludium legatura; Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704): Missa ex B a 6; Requiem ex F con terza minore; Orlandus Lassus (1532-1594): Ave verum corpus a 6 [1]; Media vita in morte sumus a 6 [1]; Abaham Megerle (1607-1680): Peccator et consolator a 2 [2]; Georg Muffat (1653-1704): Ciacona [3]; Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (c1620-1680): Sonata II [4]; Sonata XIII [5]

(Sources: [1] Orlandus Lassus, Magnum opus musicum, 1604; [2] Megerle, Ars musica solemni concertu, 1647; [3] Muffat, Apparatus musico-organisticus, 1690; [4] Schmelzer, Duodena selectarum sonatarum, 1659; [5] Sacro-profanus concentus musicus, 1662)

Susan Gilmour Bailey; Alicia Carroll; Carol Hall; Susan Hemington-Jones; Ruth Holton; Amy Howarth, soprano; Daniel Auchinschloss, Mark Dobell, William Unwin, high tenor; Tom Phillips, Angus Smith, tenor; Don Greig, Charles Pott, baritone; Simon Grant, Richard Savage, Christopher Sheldrake, bass; Catherine Martin, Oliver Webber, violin; Rachel Byrt, Stefanie Heichelheim, viola; Chris Suckling, tenor violin; Joseph Crouch, bass violin; Adrian France, Simon Gunton, Adam Woolf, sackbut; Timothy Amherst, violone; Paula Chateauneuf, theorbo; Robert Howarth, Timothy Roberts, organ

The frontpage of the booklet of this disc simply says: "Biber - Requiem". But the backside of the tray is more specific: "A Requiem for Biber". This recording was made in commemoration of the death of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber in 1704. The theme of this recording is the first line of an antiphon from the 8th century: "Media vita in morte sumus" - In the midst of life we are in death. This, as Dorothee Schröder explains in the booklet, was a harsh reality in Biber's time. And he himself got a share of it: seven of his 11 children died prematurely. The disc refers to both life and death: the first part is entitled "Vita" (life), and brings the Mass in B flat, performed within a liturgical context. The second part is devoted to "Mors" (death), and contains Biber's Requiem in f minor.

In our time Biber is mainly known as composer of virtuosic music for string ensemble and in particular for solo violin. And it was his own violin playing which brought him his reputation. But he was also active in the field of church music. In 1678 he became vice-Kapellmeister and in 1684 Kapellmeister in the archbishopric of Salzburg. In this capacity he composed a large number of works to be performed in Salzburg Cathedral. Among them are two large-scale works which for a long time were attributed to Orazio Benevoli: the 53-part Missa Salisburgensis and the Missa Bruxellensis in 23 parts. The two mass settings on this disc are more modest in scoring.

The Mass in B flat was probably written for a smallish parish church, which is reflected by the performance on this disc: solo voices with the organ playing the basso continuo part, supported by a bass violin. The interpretation raises some questions. In Biber's time it was common practice to play instrumental pieces during mass. But it is unlikely all churches had instrumentalists at their disposal to do so. So when this mass was indeed written for a relatively small parish church, is it very likely instruments were available to play sonatas as in this recording? And if so, why would they remain silent for the largest part of the mass instead of playing colla parte with the voices, which also was often practiced in Biber's days? It seems to me this recording is rather inconsistent in this regard.
In his 'Performance notes' in the booklet Paul McCreesh writes: "We have chosen to sing this piece with doubled soprano parts and single male voices (...)". I am a little puzzled by this decision: why should the soprano parts be sung by two singers each? It results in an unsatisfying balance within the vocal ensemble, where the sopranos tend to dominate. That is not the only aspect of this performance which I find disappointing: some singers also use too much vibrato, in particular the tenor Daniel Auchinschloss, which seriously damages the blending of the voices. And although this mass setting is rather old-fashioned, more connected to the 'prima' than the 'seconda prattica', I don't think it should be sung with so much legato as is the case here.

Unlike the Mass ex B the Requiem is linked to Salzburg Cathedral, but even so it is relatively modest in its scoring as well. Here McCreesh has opted for the addition of ripieno forces of 10 singers, trombones and an organ to the scoring of 5 voices and 6-part string ensemble. This performance is much more satisfying: in particular the ripieno sections are very well done. The problems in the performance of the Mass regarding the use of vibrato and the lack of blending return only in the sections for the solo voices.

The addition of music by other composers in liturgical 'reconstructions' may reflect common practice in those days, the choice of specific compositions is pure speculation. Pieces by Schmelzer, Muffat and Megerle are logical options, as all of them were active during Biber's life - Schmelzer being probably his teacher. The only odd choice is Lassus, but it is argued in the booklet that Lassus's reputation was such that his music still belonged to the standard repertory in Biber's time. That may be true, but I sincerely doubt if his music would have been performed differently from the way the music of Biber and his contemporaries was interpreted. When the Requiem is performed with 6-part strings, as is the case here, would Lassus's motet Media vita in morte sumus, which concludes this disc, have been played without them?

To sum up: this recording is a kind of mixed baggage. I liked the performance of the Requiem, but that work has been recorded several times before. It is a shame that it is precisely the far less known Mass in B flat, whose performance is unsatisfactory.

Johan van Veen (© 2007)

Relevant links:

Gabrieli Consort & Players

CD Reviews