Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber: The Mystery Sonatas – Apollo’s Fire with Alan Choo – Avie

by | May 18, 2024 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber: The Mystery Sonatas – Apollo’s Fire with Alan Choo – Avie AV2656 – CD – 129:23 – *****

(Alan Choo– baroque violins; Jeanette Sorrell – harpsichord, dir.; René Schiffer – cello; William Simms, theorbo; Kivie Cahn-Lipman, lirone; Peter Bennett, chamber organ; Anna O”Connell, triple harp; Brian Kay, archlute)

“No detail is left unexplored in this rendition of Biber’s most challenging and engaging music for violin and continuo, wrapped in a sympathetic, atmospheric sound”

Perhaps the most interesting collection of baroque violin sonatas are Heinrich Biber’s Mystery Sonatas, also known as the Rosary Sonatas which convey a rich tapestry of human emotion and energy that both aims to present story and uses just about every trick known to musicians at the time to grab and hold our attention. Their technical requirements from the violinist are often remarked upon because of the composer’s use of scordatura, a technique is re-tuning the strings to promote different harmonic presentations with multiple stops, and as an aside, this practice will also change the overall sonic character of the instrument. The challenge is to place one’s fingers down as the notes indicate on the score, however the score acts more as a tablature, as the notes sounding from the re-tuned strings do not sound at pitch. (While we can imagine this is an odd feeling, especially if you have perfect pitch, I think the solution Biber employed is better than trying to do the shifts in your head!)

We believe Biber was among the most renowned violinists of the era, and he evidently had experience at other instruments as well. We are fortunate that this music survived and in terms of the style of the period, it’s high art. The association with the rosary is clear by the engravings attached to each sonata which indicate Biber’s thematic material. Today there are a number of truly engaging performances of this work and the American ensemble Apollo’s Fire has taken this on with its leader, the Singaporean Alan Choo. Back home, Choo performs with Red Dot Baroque and stateside, he’s been a regular in the past seasons with Jeannette Sorrell’s group, which supports Choo with continuo in this album.

Recorded in the resonant space of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, this album stands out for its rich continuo, inventive interpretations, and superb technical execution. I often think that churches are not always the best venue for recording chamber music, as they are too large on their own. While I haven’t set foot in St. Paul’s, this church is not, as far as location indicates, a large European cathedral. Whether it is the wisdom of the recording engineer, the size of the church, or both, this recording’s acoustic turns out to support the music beautifully. The spatial presentation of the instruments, with sounds seemingly emanating from all directions, adds to the immersive experience. While some may find the reverb a bit excessive at times, it does support the music’s grandeur and the microphone placement used doesn’t leave out the details that we may crave.

Alan Choo’s virtuosic violin performance is central to this recording, supported by the well-regarded Apollo’s Fire team providing a colorful palette for the continuo parts. The ensemble includes a diverse array of continuo instruments, such as gambas, plucked instruments, harp, organ, and percussion, creating a lush and engaging soundscape. Sorrell and Choo employ different combinations of continuo instruments between sonatas, offering each one (as many ensembles do) a different sound signature for each sonata.

Performers often are challenged on how to perform these works in a concertized setting, as changing the tuning of the violin requires an adjustment period. For this recording Choo employs a number of different violins. The variety brought about by these changes, in addition to the tunings, gives each sonata (perhaps by design) its own sound signature.

Choo’s interpretative choices are noteworthy. His handling of multi-stopping and articulation reveals a thoughtful and personal approach to the music. The contributions from the continuo players, particularly William Simms on theorbo and guitar, are integral to the album’s success, providing a solid yet nuanced foundation.

Sampling a selection of the works:

  • Sonata 1: The Annunciation: Choo delivers a commanding performance, with the opening establishing a strong stage presence. The interplay with sounds like lirone or gamba is particularly effective, and the overall balance and cohesion are admirable.
  • Sonata 4: Presentation in the Temple: Choo seems to give equal weight to the melody and harmony as he opens after a wonderful opening on theorbo. This gives a sense of a hurdy-gurdy sound before Biber iterates the melody over a chaconne bass, opening our minds and interest as the music becomes more dancelike. I like how Choo is articulating in this one, giving just enough space and variation between episodes to keep things interesting; the portamento effect he employs at one point is gilding the lily, but it’s all good as an appetizer for the more bombastic runs that follow.
  • Sonata 9: Carrying of the Cross: This sonata features some of Choo’s most intense and emotive playing. His use of ornamentation and phrasing enhances the dramatic narrative, making for a compelling listening experience.
  • Sonata 11: The Resurrection: The use of harp and organ in this sonata creates an angelic ambiance that complements the theme of resurrection. Choo’s seamless transitions between registers and his precise intonation are highlights.
  • Sonata 16: The Guardian Angel: Returning to standard tuning, this final piece is performed without continuo, allowing Choo’s interpretation to shine through with emotional depth and clarity. His approach to the double stops and phrasing is particularly poignant.

In a span of time with several new recordings of Biber’s Mystery Sonatas having appeared, it’s a crowded space. This album is among the best I can remember from Apollo’s Fire and Sorrell’s direction. But while credit for the musical strength on display goes to all the musicians involved, the achievement is one that should signal that Choo has arrived.

Highly recommended for connoisseurs and enthusiasts of Baroque music. The recording sits proudly in the same light as several other great recordings, and the music is rich enough to entertain a number of performances each with their own unique moments of exhilaration and meditation. And if you’re not already familiar with Choo and his collaboration with the Cleveland-based Apollo’s Fire, you will be now.

— John Hendron

More information through Avie Records or Apollo’s Fire

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Album Cover for Biber Mystery Sonatas, Alan Choo, Apollo's Fire

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