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Heinrich Ignaz Franz & Carl Heinrich BIBER: Sacred works

Marie Sophie Pollak, soprano; Kaspar Kröner, alto; Hans Jörg Mammel, tenor; Michael Kranebitter, bass
Concerto Stella Matutina
Dir: Johannes Hämmerle

rec: May 2017, Brixen, Seminarkirche
fra bernardo - fb 1710593 (© 2017) (71'45")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Carl Heinrich BIBER (1681-1749): Missa Resurrectionis Domini; Requiem; Heinrich Ignaz Franz VON BIBER (1644-1704): In exitu Israel; Memento, Domine; Quasi cedrus exaltata

Stephanie Pfeffer, soprano; Alexandra Rawohl, contralto; Eelke van Koot, tenor; Philipp Scherer, bass
Herbert Walser-Breuß, Bernhard Lampert, Lucas Oberer, Gabriel Morre, trumpet; Stefan Konzett, Dietmar Nigsch, Erwin Wendl, trombone; Barbara Meditz, bassoon; Silvia Schweinberger, Veronika Spalt-Campbell, Ingrid Loacker, Sarina Matt, Fani Vovoni, Susanne Mattle, Ruth Konzett, violin; Lucas Schurig-Breuß, Annemarie Kosten-Dür, viola; Thomas Platzgummer, cello; Barbara Fischer, double bass; Johannes Hämmerle, organ; Stefan Greussing, timpani

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber is best known for his compositions for his own instrument, the violin. In particular his so-called Mystery sonatas are frequently performed and recorded. Far lesser known is the fact that he also composed a large number of sacred vocal works, mostly for the cathedral in Salzburg, where he worked from 1670 until his death. The vocal music was the result of his being appointed deputy Kapellmeister in 1679; five years later he succeeded Andreas Hofer as Kapellmeister.

Biber's best-known sacred work is the Missa Salisburgensis, which for a long time was attributed to Orazio Benevoli, but is now generally acknowledged as being from Biber's pen. It is the most opulent specimen of a genre, known as Festmesse (festive mass), which was especially popular in Austria. Biber also composed sacred concertos for a small scoring, such as solo voice, obbligato violin and basso continuo. These are sometimes performed, especially as they have two attractive features: a strong amount of text expression and a virtuosic violin part. It is questionable whether such pieces were written for the liturgy in Salzburg Cathedral. They may have been intended for more intimate surroundings, such as a private chapel, and the violin parts may Biber have performed himself.

His liturgical music receives little attention, with the exception of the Missa Salisburgensis. The present disc includes three liturgical pieces. Quasi cedrus exaltata is a motet for the feast of the Assumption, one of the major feast days of the Roman Catholic Church, celebrated on 15 August. The text is a mixture of verses from the Song of Songs and the Wisdom of Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus), one of the Apocrypha of the Bible. The voices are supported by strings and basso continuo.

It was common practice at the time to add sackbuts, playing colla parte with the voices and/or other instruments. This practice is applied in the two other pieces by Biber, both taken from his collection of music for Vespers, published in Salzburg in 1693. In exitu Israel is a setting of Psalm 113 (114), whereas the text of Memento, Domine is Psalm 131 (132). Both psalms are pretty long, but Biber needs only around five minutes for both of them. This already indicates that there is not much opportunity to express the text in the music. That was probably not the main aim of such pieces. The same goes for a work such as the Missa Salisburgensis. Their first intention was to impress the audience and emphasize the splendour and importance of Salzburg Cathedral, not unlike the way music for St Mark's in Venice was intended to demonstrate the power and wealth of the city and its rulers.

Biber had 11 children, of whom only four survived childhood: two sons and two daughters, who were all skilled musicians. Carl Heinrich was already taking part in the performance of two of his father's schooldramas at the age of 11. In 1704 he travelled to Rome, apparently to entend his skills in violin playing. Like his father he worked at the court in Salzburg. In 1714 he became vice-Kapellmeister and in 1743 Kapellmeister. He composed exclusively for the church, both vocal works, such as masses, music for Vespers, litanies, Magnificats and settings of the Te Deum, as well as 31 sonatas. Some of the latter have been recorded, but the vocal works have been largely ignored to date. Therefore the recording of two large-scale works on the present disc is of major importance.

According to Cliff Eisen, in his article on Carl Heinrich Biber in New Grove, "[his] sturdily crafted and traditionally contrapuntal works, however, made little impression in Salzburg; he was considered far less important a composer than his contemporary [Matthias Siegmund] Biechteler". The latter was Biber's predecessor as Kapellmeister in Salzburg. Eisen does not mention any source for his statement. If he is right, the reason may be that Biber's liturgical music has clear conservative traits. Bernhard Trebuch, in his liner-notes, states: "Although Carl Heinrich Biber may well have been familiar with Italian high baroque sacred music such as Antonio Vivaldi's famous Gloria, these two ornate masses show little of its influence. Instead, their blend of sensitive, some - times mellifluous motives and ever recurrent counterpoint provide a missing link to the sacred music of the Haydn brothers, Mozart and others in Austria and Southern Germany in the second half of the 18th century." One does not hear extensive solos in the two masses included here. There are some episodes for a solo voice with strings and basso continuo, which remind us of the sacred works written by Italian composers of Biber's time. In the Gloria from the Missa Resurrectionis Domini, for instance, there are successive solos for tenor (Gratias agimus), alto (Domine Deus), bass (Domine Fili) and soprano (Domine Deus), but these are in no way comparable to the solos in Vivaldi's Gloria, mentioned by Trebuch. The way the trombones are used is very much alike the practices of the 17th century, and was becoming obsolete in Biber's time. Notable in the Credo is the obbligato part for the violin in the section about Jesus' passion. The joy of the resurrection is emphasized by the use of trumpets and the coloratura in the soprano solo part.

The Requiem opens with repeated figures in the strings, which seem to refer to funeral bells. 'Te decet' is a solo for the tenor, accompanied by strings. In the Sequence (Dies irae) the trumpets play a major role. The opening is dominated by fanfare figures, and these return in 'Tuba mirum', a solo for the alto in which one trumpet plays an obbligato part. In 'Preces meae' (Worthless are my prayers and sighing) the violin is given an obbligato part. The Communion is restrained, emphasized by the reduction of the instrumental ensemble to strings. The work closes with the full ensemble, exclaiming that "Thou art gracious".

The performances are perfect. "Since the voice parts, divided into 'concertante' and 'ripieno', only survive singly as usual, we have chosen to use a total of eight singers", Trebuch writes in the booklet. When they all sing, the vocal ensemble does sound a bit larger than eight, but that is probably the effect of the acoustic. The balance between singers and instrumentalists is immaculate. I have nothing but praise for the performances of the singers. These are eight very fine voices, which blend perfectly; the solo episodes are excellently executed. The instrumental ensemble is first class.

In short, this is a delightful disc, and the performers are the best possible advocates of the liturgical music of father and son Biber.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Michael Kranebitter
Kaspar Kröner
Hans Jörg Mammel
Marie Sophie Pollak
Concerto Stella Matutina

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