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Heinrich Ignaz Franz von BIBER (1644-1704)
The Rosary Sonatas
Sonata I: The Annunciation [7:46]
Sonata II: The Visitation [6:08]
Sonata III: The Nativity [7:16]
Sonata IV: The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple [8:40]
Sonata V: The Finding in the Temple [9:25]
Sonata VI: The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane [7:43]
Sonata VII: The Scourging of Jesus [10:37]
Sonata VIII: The Crowning of Jesus with Thorns [7:38]
Sonata IX: Jesus carrying the Cross [8:42]
Sonata X: The Crucifixion [10:13]
Sonata XI: The Resurrection [9:30]
Sonata XII: The Ascension [8:20]
Sonata XIII: The Descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost [8:53]
Sonata XIV: The Assumption of our Lady [10:15]
Sonata XV: The Crowning of the Blessed Virgin [12:40]
Passacaglia [10:28]
Hélène Schmitt (violin)
François Guerrier (claviorgan)
Massimo Moscardo (archlute, theorbo)
Francisco Mañalich (viola da gamba)
Jan Krigovsky (violone)
rec. September 2014, Gut Holthausen, Büren (Ostwestfalen)
Reviewed in stereo and surround
AEOLUS AE-10256 SACD [65:58 + 79:39]

Produced in a well-designed and lavishly documented double gatefold digipack, this recording of Biber’s Rosary Sonatas in SACD sound is an attractive prospect. Schmitt’s booklet notes open with the admission that we as listeners today can have no real concept as to the impression this music would have made on the people of the 17th century. ‘The Fifteen Sacred Mysteries’ describing Jesus’s joy, sorrow and glory would have been much more of a reality for Biber's contemporaries. However, this is no barrier to appreciation of such great music. After all we can appreciate the religious paintings and sculptures of the same period even while missing some of the semantic meanings in their content. The booklet goes into the history of the manuscript scores, Biber’s life and work, and of course some of the technical aspects of the work, including that famous ‘scordatura’ or re-tuning of the violin strings for particular effects. German and French versions of the text make the booklet into quite a chunky tome, but the information given here adds much value to the release as a whole.

There was a time when Heinrich Biber’s Rosary or Mystery Sonatas were something of a rarity on record, but this release on the Aeolus label enters a market with some stiff competition. Hélène Schmitt has a well established reputation as a fine violinist in the Early Music scene, and she shines in this immaculately recorded production. This version is relatively intimate, with plenty of detail on the soloist and basso continuo accompaniment in its various colourful guises. The church acoustic is pleasantly resonant, but by no means awash with echo, the SACD offering an enhanced spread of sound and a nice sense of ambience and involvement without offering anything unsuitably unrealistic.

What you may notice about these performances is that they are quite stately in pace when compared to some other recordings and as far as timings go there would be barely any space for the kind of extras you can sometimes find. Schmitt doesn’t overdo the technical fireworks when it comes to the solo part. For instance she almost understates the spectacular runs in the opening Praeludium compared to, for example, Ariadne Daskalakis on the BIS label (review). One can also compare the energetic dance feel to the following Variatio, which is taken by Schmitt and her players as something of formal elegance and reserve rather than a sprightly romp. The arguments as to which perspective might have been expected back in the 17th century come into play here of course, and I can see the validity of both approaches.

The effect of lamentation in music is an essential element in these sonatas. Hélène Schmitt as with many of her rivals uses vibrato sparingly and more as expressive ornament than a feature of tone colour, and her playing in the opening Lamento of The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane is very effective. Comparing this to Andrew Manze on the Harmonia Mundi label however (review) and I do feel a little more of the desolation behind the notes in this alternative. Manze and his crew open The Crowning of Jesus with Thorns with the prickly texture of the harpsichord as a leading sonority, which contrasts greatly with the more gentle organ and viola da gamba in Schmitt’s version. This exemplifies the extremes of difference one can encounter between performances.

I have greatly enjoyed Hélène Schmitt’s recording and with its bright, airy sound and honest musicianship this is a recording which should attract a wide following. With superbly crafted playing and a recording to match I have no real criticisms to make, but can only point to some other versions which collectors might find more satisfying in certain regards. There is no lack of contrast in this performance, and the darker chapters of Crucifixion and elsewhere on disc 2 can pack quite a punch, but so do many others – the high drama and almost operatic gestures of Sirkka-Liisa Kaakinen-Pilch on the Ondine label (review) ably making the point in this section.

Such added layers of emphasis are impressive but can prove wearing over time. Where Hélène Schmitt has the advantage is in the kind of pure musicality which keeps its affect in proportion, offering up and revealing its secrets over the entire span of the cycle of sonatas and in repeated listening. Right down to the final Passacaglia this is a performance which has its own atmosphere, and I’ve found it exerts an increasing magnetism over time, and you need to allow it the space to take effect. In placing yourself back in history to a period where the fluttering of leaves in the wind or the placement of a shaft of sunlight might take on the deepest significance, you can absorb this performance and more than appreciate the remarkable qualities of Biber’s art to the full.

Dominy Clements



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