FRANZ BIBER: Rosary Sonatas (complete) – Daniel Spec, violin/ Hille Perl, viola da gamba/ Lee Santana, archlute, theorbo/ Michael Behringer, harpsichord, organ – Coviello Classics multichannel SACD 21008 (2 discs), 124:36 [Distr. by Qualiton] ****:
Franz Biber (1644-1704) was an Austrian composer and violinist and who spent the greater part of his life in Salzburg where he published much of his music but gave few concerts. Without him the history of the violin might have taken a different turn, and his influence mightily expanded the possibilities of the instrument while creating a virtual textbook of scordatura tuning. His music is complex, intricate, descriptive, and extremely difficult for even the modern virtuoso.
Maximilian Gandolph von Khuenburg was the dedicatee, to whom Biber says "I have consecrated the whole to the honour of the XV Sacred Mysteries, which you promote so strongly." The first and last pieces are the only ones using normal tuning, and the sonatas depict the mysteries of the western rosary (“rose garden”), the prayer beads used to count the series of prayers that make up the rosary. In the engraved printing a picture of each mystery appears in front of each sonata, while an angel and child appear before the final passacaglia. Biber did not confine himself solely to the violin, also writing masses, requiems, and other musical forms, but his lasting legacy remains his violin works, of which the Rosary Sonatas are by far the most important.
There have been many good recordings of this music, some with a more extended continuo and others scaled back, like the Manze version on Harmonia mundi. My favorite to this point has been the recording by John Holloway on Virgin Classics, but this new lusciously-captured reading by Daniel Spec has much to commend it. Spec uses a viola da gamba archlute, theorbo, harpsichord, and organ to great effect. Some might think this overkill in these sonatas, and prefer a scaled-back version that gives more credence to the things happening in the violin itself, but to me these works are orchestral in sonority and massive in descriptive power, and as such are only enhanced by the added colors and weight. The surround sound is nicely done, making good use of all channels, and bringing a certain depth to the experience that would be otherwise lacking. Definitely a keeper.
— Steven Ritter