musica Dei donum

CD reviews



rec: Sept 7 - 10, 2017, Saint-Michel en Thiérache (F), Abbatiale
Hitasura Productions - HSP 004 (© 2018) (73'16")
Cover & track-list
Scores Biber

Heinrich Ignaz Franz VON BIBER (1644-1704): Mystery Sonatas (Sonata VI in c minor: Das Leiden am Ölberg; Sonata VII in F: Die Geißelung; Sonata VIII in B flat: Die Dornenkrönung; Sonata IX in a minor: Die Kreuztragung; Sonata X in g minor: Die Kreuzigung); Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643): Maddalena alla croce (sonetto spirituale); Johann Jacob FROBERGER (1616-1667): Lamentation faite sur la mort tres douloureuse de Sa Majesté Impériale Ferdinand le troisième in f minor (FbWV 633); Partita in a minor (FbWV 630) (Plainte faite à Londres pour passer la Melancholie); Johann ROSENMÜLLER (c1619-1684): Lamentationes Jeremiae (Giovedi Santo Lectio 3a: Aleph. Ego vir videns paupertatem meam; Lectio Terza del Giovedi Santo: Aleph. Ego vir videns paupertatem meam; Venerdi Santo Lectio 3a: Incipit oratio Jeremiae); Matthias WECKMANN (1616-1674): Toccata in e minor

Maïlys de Villoutreys, soprano; Mira Glodeanu, violin; James Munro, viola da gamba, violone; Frédérick Haas, harpsichord, organ

Sacred music is usually written for voices, either with or without instruments. Instrumental sacred music is mostly strongly connected to vocal models. such as hymns. Examples are the many chorale preludes, arrangements and partitas by German composers of the 17th and 18th centuries. However, there are a few pieces of separate instrumental music of a sacred nature. The best-known specimen is Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze by Joseph Haydn, which was first conceived as a cycle of sonatas for orchestra. Later this work was arranged for string quartet and for keyboard, and its popularity inspired Haydn to turn it into a work for solo voices, choir and orchestra.

This disc offers earlier examples of instrumental sacred music. In the 17th century, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber composed a cycle of sonatas for violin and basso continuo, which are generally known as Mystery Sonatas (in German Rosenkranz-Sonaten). We don't know which title Biber has given his sonatas himself, as the title page is missing. The cycle comprises sonatas about the life of Christ and end with pieces connected to the Virgin Mary. It is tempting to interpret them as programmatic music, but although there are some descriptive elements, such as in Sonata VII, about the scourging of Christ, these sonatas are rather meditations on his life. The word 'meditation' should not be misunderstood. Nowadays music presented as meditative is mostly soft and unobtrusive, allowing the listener to dream away and sink down into himself. But the latin verb meditare also means 'study thoroughly' or 'practise'. In the liner notes to a recording by Pavlo Beznosiuk, James Clements writes that "by contemplating the image, reading the texts, and hearing the music, individuals were supposed to create a mental picture of the mystery, often in minute detail and at great length." And Wiebke Thormählen, in the booklet to the recording by the ensemble Sonnerie, states: "Graphic sound painting has parallels in much counter-Reformation art which seeks a powerful immediacy of visualisation with the depicted emotions, but provoking so strong a reaction that his emotions are heartfelt rather than merely sympethetic." This explains the often strongly dramatic music to be found in this collection which is rather disturbing than meditative in the modern sense of the word.

The collection is divided into three groups of sonatas: the 'Joyful Mysteries' (Die fünf freudenreichen Mysterien) (Sonatas I - V), the 'Sorrowful Mysteries' (Die fünf schmerzhaften Mysterien) (Sonatas VI - X) and the 'Glorious Mysteries' (Die fünf glorreichen Mysterien) (Sonatas XI - XV). The latter refer to Christ's resurrection and ascension, the descent of the Holy Ghost, and lastly the assumption and beatification of the Virgin. As the engraving which precedes the concluding Passacaglia shows an angel holding the hand of a child, it is often labelled 'the Guardian Angel'.

There are many recordings of the Mystery Sonatas in the catalogue. Rather than adding another one, the performers decided to focus on the second section, the sonatas about the Passion and death of Christ, and put them into a context of Passion music. The main additions are three settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah by Johann Rosenmüller. He was a contemporary of Biber, and from that angle this is a good choice. For most of his life, Rosenmüller lived and worked in Italy, and it seems likely that his Lamentations date from that period. They were probably also intended for the Catholic liturgy, as the Lamentations were part of the celebrations during the last three days of Holy Week, but had no place in any Lutheran liturgy. As far as I know, the entire set of four lessons has been recorded only once, by Ingrid Schmithüsen and the ensemble Parnassi Musici (CPO, 1997). Unfortunately, the liner-notes to that recording don't provide us with any information about these pieces.

It is also regrettable that the concept of this disc is rather inconsistent. On the basis of the selection of sonatas by Biber and Lamentations by Rosenmüller, one could get the impression that this disc is exclusively devoted to the Passion of Christ. The inclusion of Maddalena alla croce, a sonetto spirituale by Frescobaldi, points in the same direction. However, Frédérick Haas has added some keyboard pieces by Froberger which are also lamentations but inspired by very different events. This way, 'Passion' is disposed of its specific religious connotations.

The performances of Rosenmüller's Lamentations and Frescobaldi's sonetto spirituale are really outstanding. Maïlys de Villoutreys's account is of great intensity and stylistically impeccable. That makes it all the more regrettable that we only get three of the four Lamentations. Mira Glodeanu is probably more restrained in her performance of Biber's sonatas than other performers I have heard in these pieces, but that seems to be part of the overall approach of these artists. Intimate is the appropriate word to describe this recording. That manifests itself also in the keyboard pieces. Haas plays a harpsichord with gut strings, which results in a muffled sound. From that perspective, this disc is an interesting and musically compelling alternative to what is already on the market.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

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