BIBER: The Rosary Sonatas – Hélène Schmitt – Aeolus

BIBER: The Rosary Sonatas – Hélène Schmitt – Aeolus SACD AE–10256, 145:38, (7/13/17) *****:

Biber, by now, has earned his place in the pantheon of baroque composers. Specifically, he represents the high art in Austrian music before Mozart. In trying to understand Biber the musician, it’s difficult to ignore the impact his Mystery or Rosary Sonatas have on informing us about his best work as a composer and virtuosity as a violinist. Biber scored fifteen of the sixteen works for violin and continuo, and capped these multi-movement works with a violin solo.

The sonatas are each, in score, accompanied by visual scenes from the Rosary. The concluding passacaglia is sometimes called The Guardian Angel, based upon its accompanying visual image. The Passacaglia is reminiscent of the great Bach Ciaccona from his second partita, written likely around twenty years later than Biber’s collection.

Of especial interest in these works is Biber’s use of scordatura—or re-tuning—of the violin strings. All but the first and last works require the performer to retune her instrument, offering us a new sonic signature for the instrument, in addition to new voicing possibilities for chords and faster passagework. This re-tuning offers a challenge to the modern performer when concertizing and recording the works in a span of a few days, for the new tension experienced by the violin can quickly put the violin out of tune. Some performers rotate in a number of instruments to combat the issue. This was the technique employed by violinist Reinhard Goebel in his 1990 recording for DG Archiv. Goebel has played the role of mentor to Schmitt, so I was interested in comparing their recordings. While Schmitt’s interpretation is very different than Goebel’s, I found it no less interesting. Like many performers, including Goebel, she employs more than one violin to make the recording. Like Goebel, she also employs a rich variety of continuo partners, even surpassing the color and dynamic interest of the bass from Goebel’s recording with Musica Antiqua Köln. In this video, which serves as a great preview to the recording, Schmitt shares that she also used one of Goebel’s violins to record Biber’s Mystery Sonatas.

Schmitt’s recording reminded me somewhat of another violinist’s reading. Andrew Manze partnered with Richard Egarr in their release on Harmonia mundi. Manze employs a single keyboard partner for the entire work, which is an interesting counterpoint to interpretations that employ the full menagerie of color. Manze’s take on the Rosary Sonatas focused on their private, meditative nature as sonic prayers. Schmitt likewise takes her time with the sonatas. The first sound audible on the recording is presumably Schmitt taking a breath. It’s breath—what fuels the human voice—that drives the phrasing of Schmitt’s interpretation. Whether she is playing a slower passage with long notes, or else playing a faster run, each phrase seems shaped by the humanity of big breaths. This aspect of her playing for me makes it a more interesting performance when compared to Manze.

Another ripe asset to this recording is a beautiful and clean sound quality. The tonal character of Schmitt’s two violins are different, especially so when stressed through different tunings. By taking her time in some passages, we get to luxuriate in the richness of her instrument’s sound. Dynamically, the music is punctuated with the basso continuo team who, using different combinations of claviorgan, bass lutes, gamba, and violone across the sonatas, match the rich timbre of Schmitt’s violin. In addition, they provide interest through a variety of tone color, attack, and sensitivity toward dynamic balance that engages the listener. Speaking of balance, the engineers strike an ideal balance between the ensemble and achieve a sweet spot in clarity, with a close miking that captures the sonic wash of a church, with appropriate reverb.

For an example of the penetrating tone the violin can assume when tuned differently, we could queue the opening to the thirteenth sonata, The Descent of the Holy Ghost. Perhaps strange for a religiously-focused work, the next section following an opening sonata is a Gavotte, Gigue, and Sarabanda—all dances. Biber wrote the works in a “phantasticus” style, alternating moods with tempo changes without a formal break in notation. Schmitt, along with her colleagues François Guerrier, Massimo Moscardo, Francisco Mañalich, and Jan Krigovksy, take on the dances with rhythmic precision, but not so literally to become profane. The Gigue from the fifth sonata, The Finding of Jesus in the Temple may be the exception, with Schmitt bouncing it at a fairly good clip.

A penetrating timbre is also experienced in their reading of the seventh sonata, The Scourging of Jesus. It also employs another common form used throughout the sonatas, that of variation. The variations, above all else, offer us a glimpse into Biber’s musical creativity.

Among the favorites of the collection are the tenth sonata, The Crucifixion, wherein the violin’s mistuning makes a visual cross by exchanging the strings at the tailpiece behind the bridge. I listened to this sonata on several occasions, finding Schmitt’s interpretation to be an excellent combination of contrasts: fast passages and slow, dynamics soft and appropriately forced, to accommodate the subject matter.

Another is the final Passacaglia, again back to using the violin’s normal tuning pattern of fifths. A descending four note pattern becomes the simple foundation for a series of variations, suitable fodder for expressing a deep range of emotive affect. Again, Schmitt takes her time. Schmitt ends up taking more time to perform the Passacaglia than any other musicians in my collection of these sonatas, but somehow, with her gift of phrasing and dynamics, the interpretation doesn’t suffer at all. She takes what feels is almost the ideal time to present the work, in a style I already fell for earlier in the recording. It is a fantastic supposition to posit Bach’s familiarity with this solo.

The liner notes quote that over twenty recordings now exist of Biber’s sixteen sonatas written for the mysteries of the rosary. It is not lost on me why this has become part of the baroque canon. The pieces are chock-full of expressive invention. The score, as beautiful as it is with the visual presentation of each prayer, leaves the modern performer with a lot of license for performance. Having earlier enjoyed Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas on Schmitt’s baroque violin for Alpha, I was happy to encounter this new recording that further impressed me with Schmitt’s technical capacity, her aesthetic acumen, and her ability to celebrate the beauty of what we call the baroque violin. For the collector who may already have one or more interpretations of the sonatas as part of their collection, this one offers, for me, a nice counterpoint that exists somewhere harmoniously between the energetic virtuosity of Reinhard Goebel and the almost muted, formal reverence of Andrew Manze.

—Sebastian Herrera

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