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Heinrich Ignaz Franz von BIBER (1644-1704)
Fidicinium Sacro-Profanum: XII Sonatas for 2 violins, 2 violas and basso continuo (1683) [69.00]
Georg MUFFAT (1653-1704)
Toccata Duodecima (Apparatus musico-organisticus, 1690) [7.05]
Francesco Corti (organ, Muffat)
Harmonie Universelle/Florian Deuter and Mónica Waisman
rec. Kirche St.Leodegar, Niederehe, Germany, 2018
Notes in English, French and German.
ACCENT ACC24357 [76.05]

Heinrich Biber is famous for his set of fifteen Mystery or Rosary Sonatas. The Fidicinium Sacro-Profanum - sacred and profane fiddle music - is not quite so extensive, twelve instead of fifteen works, and each sonata is on average shorter. Nonetheless these pieces are almost equally challenging for the players and as impressive for the listener. The set was put together for publication in 1683 but like the Rosary Sonatas was composed over a long period. One should note that Biber did not stop there, also publishing other sets, mostly, but not entirely, consisting of string sonatas, along with a large amount of choral music. Working, as he did, for an archbishop, most of his output is concerned directly or indirectly with religion. Perhaps his most impressive choral composition is the polychoral Missa Salisburgensis of 1682.

Biber was, according to Charles Burney, the most important composer for violin of the 17th century. He pulls no technical punches in this set but what strikes the listener is the dramatic contrasts within each sonata. Biber will go from dancing to mourning, from lyricism to angry fury without warning. The usual division is into three or four sections, the changes often coming very suddenly. It is genuinely thrilling to hear. The set is divided into six sonatas each for, firstly, 2 violins, 2 violas and continuo, and secondly for 2 violins, 1 viola and continuo. In a sense this gives all the works the feeling of a string quartet or quintet because the basso continuo group contains at least two instruments. But this is to be anachronistic, these are works of the High Baroque and they do not sound even like Vivaldi or Bach, they have a feeling of being intoned. Just as it is simple nonsense to say all Vivaldi concertos sound the same, the wider Baroque encompasses considerable, very audible, changes of style.

Harmonie Universelle, an excellent and well established international group of baroque specialists, consists on this occasion of two violinists (the joint directors noted above), two violas, one basso di violino, a single musician playing either double-bass or violone, a lute and the St.Leodegar, Niederehe organ, the specification of which is given in the booklet. The basso continuo string group is interesting. There is no cello but instead there are three bass stringed instruments: the basso di violino is the most obscure being, by the looks of available images, a bass violin played standing; a violone, the bass instrument of the viol group, and a double bass, which is a hybrid of the other two. All three would have been in use during the High Baroque, a period when instruments underwent a huge amount of development, many products of which dropped by the wayside leaving just the modern double-bass, which is itself still available in many different forms.

The organist provides the interval music after Sonata No.6, in the shape of a virtuosic Toccata by Georg Muffat. I found this a good point to pause the CD so as to approach the second set with fresher ears. This is not to suggest one needs rest, the variety of this music is considerable, encompassing both secular and religious moods. Biber's full title includes an explicit explanation when he describes this works as Geistlich-weltliches Saitenspiel, fur Kirche wie Marktplatz, fur mehrere Streichinstrumente kunstgerecht komponiert und fur das gemeinsame Spiel geeignet. Which loosely translates as, "Spiritual-secular and profane string music, for the church as well as the market place, for several string instruments, skilful composed and suitable for a number of players."

The recording is a little too close and sounds just a touch relentless on the ear. It certainly is not as well recorded as Ars Antiqua Austria on Challenge Classics SACD, but the playing is, if anything, even more vital. The present issue can be purchased with confidence if SACD and/or surround is unimportant to you, or if, like me, you particularly enjoy high-octane baroque playing! Good notes by Bernd Heyder.

Dave Billinge

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