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Heinrich Ignaz Franz VON BIBER (1644 - 1704): Missa Christi resurgentis

The English Concert & The Choir of the English Concert
Dir: Andrew Manze

rec: September 20 - 23, 2004, London, Temple Church
Harmonia mundi - HMU 907397 ( 2005) (77'34")

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber: Fanfare No 1 a 2 [1]; Fanfare No 4 a 2 [1]; Missa Christi resurgentis; Sonata a 6 in C; Sonata I [2]; Sonata III [2]; Sonata V [2]; Sonata VII [2]; Sonata XI [2]; Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (c1620-1680): Sonata XII [3]

(Sources: [1] HIF von Biber: Sonatae tam aris quam aulis servientes, 1676; [2] HIF von Biber: Fidicinium sacro-profanum, 1682; [3] JH Schmelzer: Sacro-profanus concentus musicus, 1662)

The instrumental music of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber was part of the standard repertoire of baroque ensembles from a very early stage in the development of the historical performance practice. Even before that time Biber's music was attracting interest, for example from the composer Paul Hindemith. And in the booklet Andrew Manze tells that Yehudi Menuhin also played Biber's music, although privately.

In comparison Biber's vocal music had to wait much longer before being paid attention to. But he composed quite a lot of religious music in his capacity as Vice-Kapellmeister (since 1679) and Kapellmeister (since 1684) of Salzburg Cathedral, in the service of Prince-Archbishop Maximilian Gandolph von Khuenberg. Biber composed eight masses, two Requiems, Vesper music and smaller-scale works. One of the highlights of his religious oeuvre could be the so-called Missa Salisburgensis, which was for a long time considered a composition by Orazio Benevoli, but is now mostly attributed to Biber, although its authenticity is still not established. The Missa Christi resurgentis which is recorded here is more modest in its scoring, but in this work Biber also used the space of Salzburg Cathedral. Both the voices and the instruments are divided into two groups each: there are two choirs of singers - with an additional bass - and two choirs of instruments, consisting of strings and wind respectively. The extra bass is used in a number of passages for three basses. The reason for this scoring isn't quite known, but James Clements, the musicologist who discovered this mass setting, suggests it could symbolise the Trinity. The presence of a third bass could suggest that in Biber's time a performance with one voice per part as on this disc wasn't very likely. The large space of Salzburg Cathedral also points in the direction of larger forces than used here.

This mass was probably performed during Easter of 1674. This explains the extensive use of trumpets in this work. There are a number of passages where Biber effectively translates the text into music, as James Clements points out in the booklet. In particular the 'Et incarnatus' and 'Crucifixus etiam pro nobis' are very expressive. And there are strong contrasts at the end of the Credo, on the words "Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum".

Contrasting sections are also a feature of Biber's instrumental sonatas. Today these are usually played as chamber music, but originally they may well be intended for performance during mass, which was an established practice at the time. It is interesting to hear them in this function on this disc. In addition four additional sonatas are played. The section of the disc which is devoted to the mass opens and closes with two fanfares for two trumpets. They are from Sonatae tam aris quam aulis servientes of 1676, where they are printed as an appendix. "Trumpets were of immense importance as they were an emblem of the Archbishop's nobility, and it is therefore not surprising that he had no fewer than twelve trumpeters to hand. They would have performed these fanfares when the Archbishop entered the cathedral for Mass and when he left afterwards, just as the two trumpets mark the moment of Christ's Ascension into heaven in the Credo of the Missa Christi resurgentis" (James Clements).

The first time I heard this mass was during a live performance of the same ensemble during the Holland Festival Early Music in Utrecht some years ago. It took place in a modern concert hall, which was the completely wrong venue for this kind of music. I was very disappointed by the performance, and I had hoped this recording which was made in a much more appropriate venue would be substantially better. But unfortunately that is not the case. The much more favourable acoustical circumstances have a positive influence on the performance as a whole, but I am still very unsatisfied by this interpretation.

I am suprised that Manze allows his singers to use so much vibrato. The passages for the three basses are pretty awful because of this. One would think the bad habits of old have returned. This is simply not acceptable. And it also undermines the blending of the voices in the vocal ensemble. It is in particular the lower voices which are responsible for this, but now and then the higher voices aren't much better. In addition the playing of the strings is sometimes lacklustre and bland, and the contrasts within the sonatas are underexposed. It is the wind section which makes the strongest impression. But their performances only underline the relatively poor performances of the strings and the singers. Considering the use of vibrato - which isn't just musically unsatisfying but also historically unjustifiable - one can hardly be surprised about the Italian pronunciation of the Latin text, which also misses any historical justification.

Considering the excellent quality of the Missa Christi resurgenti one has to hope another recording of this work will appear some time in the future.

Johan van Veen ( 2007)

Relevant links:

The English Concert

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