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Heinrich Ignaz Franz VON BIBER (1644 - 1704): Mystery Sonatas

Julia Wedman, violin; Felix Deak, cello, viola da gamba; Lucas Harris, archlute, theorbo; Julia Seager Scott, harp; Charlotte Nediger, harpsichord, organ

rec: April 26 - 29 & July 4 - 9, 2010, Toronto, Grace Church on-the-Hill, 300 Lonsdale Rd
Sono Luminus - DSL-92127 (2 CDs) (© 2011) (2.08'46")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Sonata I: Die Verkündigung (The Annunciation); Sonata II: Die Heimsuchung (The Visitation); Sonata III: Jesu Geburt (The Nativity); Sonata IV: Die Darstellung im Tempel (The Presentation in the Temple); Sonata V: Jesus im Tempel (The Finding in the Temple); Sonata VI: Das Leiden am Ölberg (The Agony in the Garden); Sonata VII: Die Geißelung (The Scourging); Sonata VIII: Die Dornenkrönung (The Crowning with Thorns); Sonata IX: Die Kreuztragung (The Carrying of the Cross); Sonata X: Die Kreuzigung (The Crucifixion); Sonata XI: Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection); Sonata XII: Die Himmelfahrt Jesu (The Ascension); Sonata XIII: Die Sendung des Hl. Geistes (The Descent of the Holy Ghost); Sonata XIV: Mariae Himmelfahrt (The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin); Sonata XV: Die Krönung Mariae (The Coronation of the Blessed Virgin); Passacaglia

The so-called Mystery Sonatas by Biber ranks among the most frequently performed instrumental pieces of the 17th century. That can be explained by their musical quality, but certainly also by their rather mysterious character. We don't know what Biber called his sonatas as the title page of the manuscript has been lost. There can be no doubt about the connection to the Rosary, though, as every sonata is accompanied by an engraving which refers to a station of the Rosary. How exactly these are depicted in the music is a matter of much speculation.

It is generally assumed that the sonatas were composed around 1678. They were dedicated to Max Gandolph von Kuenberg, the archbishop of Salzburg and Biber's employer. They were never published and may have been intended for performances in the archbishop's own chapel. Some believe that they were rather to be performed in the Aula Academica, the lecture hall of the Jesuit confraternity in Salzburg. The hall contains fifteen paintings depicting the mysteries, and the Jesuits strongly advocated Rosary devotion with music.

The venue where the sonatas may have been performed could have consequences for modern performances, in particular in regard to the scoring of the basso continuo. When the sonatas were played in Max Gandolph's chapel, it is unlikely a battery of instruments would have been used in the basso continuo. In performances in the larger space of the Aula Academica more instruments could have been involved. I recently saw a list of available recordings, which came to as few short of 30. These show very different solutions to this issue. Some have opted for a number of instruments, playing in various combinations from one sonata to the other. One of the most sober is that by Andrew Manze who is accompanied only by harpsichord or organ, with a cello in Sonata XII where Biber indicated the participation of a violone. Julia Wedman is one of those who opted for a larger ensemble of cello or viola da gamba, archlute or theorbo and harpsichord or organ, with a harp in Sonata XIII.

The latter is chosen on the basis of Ms Wedman's personal interpretation of this particular sonata. "I chose to use the harp as an added colour in the continuo section to emphasize the unusual, almost creepy tonal colours which highlight the strange and frightening experience of the Holy Spirit's descent". In her comments she delivers her personal view on the various sonatas. Obviously everyone is entitled to his or her opinions. Even so, I believe she may read too much into some of the sonatas, and her views are sometimes too much of the 21st-century. An example is her comment on the Sonata V: "The Double is my favourite part of this sonata because it reminds me of the excited chatter of kids on the way home from an exciting day. I always imagine Jesus saying to Joseph "Dad - guess what happened???"" Somehow I feel that such a thought was not on Biber's mind while writing this part of his sonata.

These personal views are also at odds with the liner-notes by Lindsey Strand-Polyak, who pays much attention to the ritual of Rosary prayer. One of its essential elements is repetition. "The use of repetition as a devotional aid, as exemplified in the Rosary, has been used for centuries as a way of intensifying the meditative experience and helps bring the devotee into a state of contemplation" [sic]. She then argues that this could well explain the feature of repetition in these sonatas. Several of them have the character of a theme with variations, which allows for an increase of intensity. So does the use of a dance with repeated sections and the addition of a double. Lastly Biber makes use of ciaccona and passacaglia - the endless repeat of the same bass pattern is an almost ideal way of intensifying the emotion during the course of the piece.

There has been much speculation about the connection between the Rosary and Biber's music. There are some clear depictions of stages in Jesus' life, like the scourging and the hammering of the nails into the cross. Further study of these sonatas could well reveal more details in this matter. However, the main thing is that these sonatas were meant to help the listener to meditate about the mysteries rather than to illustrate them.

The fact that these sonatas are technically challenging obviously contributes to violinists being attracted to them. One of their features is the use of scordatura, the technique of detuning the violin in order to achieve special sonic effects. As Julia Wedman explains in her own notes, that can be quite disturbing for a violinist who needs time and effort to get used to these different tunings. However, even without the use of scordatura these sonatas are difficult enough. The performances by Ms Wedman are admirable. Her technique is immaculate, and this allows for a concentration on the sonatas' content. I like her tone which has the kind of intensity and penetration which this repertoire requires. Her views on these sonatas may be speculative and even questionable from a historical point of view, but they certainly make for compelling interpretations. She isn't afraid of strongly opposing tempi and explores the full dynamic range of the instrument. These are certainly not middle-of-the-road interpretations.

That said, there are some issues which have to be addressed, in addition to what has been said about Ms Wedman's personal views. One of them is the use of a cello in the basso continuo which is questionable. It struck me that in the article on the cello in New Grove Germany and Austria are not mentioned in the paragraph devoted to the 17th century. Apparently it was the viola da gamba that was the dominating string bass instrument. Equally debatable is the use of a harp. The organ is a logical option, probably preferable throughout these sonatas. In Sonata XI it is a little too dominant in one episode, largely overpowering the violin. As far as Ms Wedman's playing is concerned, as good and stylish as it is, a stronger differentiation between good and bad notes would have been desirable.

All in all, this is one of the better recordings of these sonatas, and well worth considering if you don't have them. Even if you have some recordings, Ms Wedman's interpretation is interesting enough to justify adding it to your collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Julia Wedman

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