Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.
Daniel Sepec (vn); Hille Perl (vdg); Lee Santana (archlute, thb); Michael Behringer (hpd, org) (period instruments)
COVIELLO 21008 (2 SACDs: 124:36)
Daniel Sepec’s recording of Heinrich Biber’s Rosary (or Mystery) Sonatas differs a bit from the many others that
have preceded it (it’s hard, from the point of view of my first associations with the works in the 1960s from Suzanne Lautenbacher’s Vox Box, reissued as CDX S171,
20:4, and the edition published in
Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Österreich
, to imagine such an explosion of interest in these works, though they always seemed to deserve it). In his performances, Sepec makes use of three violins by the Tyrolean master Jakob Stainer, whose instruments once commanded far greater respect than did Stradivari’s or del Gesù’s (Bach played on one and the Italian Francesco Maria Veracini lost a pair that he dubbed “St. Peter and St. Paul” in a shipwreck). Sepec plays the first of these, from about 1650, in Sonatas 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15, and 16; the second, from 1680, in Sonatas 3 and 8; and the third, from 1682—possibly Stainer’s last violin—in Sonatas 7, 9, and 12. His notes make it clear that he takes to these sonatas the kind of programmatic approach that others have eschewed (remember that Schmelzer took one of the sonatas over in his collection from 1683–84).
Sepec imparts to the opening of the “Annunciation” Sonata (the first in the set of five “Joyful Mysteries”) a sense of breathless expectation, which he transforms into joy in the succeeding set of variations. The clear recorded sound of the SACD captures the instruments in sufficient detail to include an occasional breath and never allows any reverberation from the venue, the Church of St. Martin Coinrade, to obscure nuances of phrasing or articulation. In neither this sonata nor the second, the “Visitation,” does Sepec produce a sound that’s studiedly “authentic,” but the reputedly sweet sound of Stainer’s violin emerges naturally and cleanly in the passagework, though it’s brilliant in the virtuosic passages that bring the Second Sonata to a close. The Third Sonata, the “Nativity,” features the second Stainer, which is richer here and lusher than the earlier one. Of course, differences among the instruments may be almost totally submerged under the wealth of timbral variety due to Biber’s scordatura tunings, which impart to each sonata an individual character. The second Stainer creates the mysterious mood of the opening as successfully as the more extroverted (and somewhat) virtuosic Courente that follows. In this sonata, as well as in others, keyboard player Michael Behringer alternates harpsichord and organ, not restricting the interchange to sonatas as a whole but employing one or the other according to the musical dictates (as the ensemble understands them) of individual movements. “The Presentation,” in which Sepec returns to the early Stainer, consists of only a single movement, a Ciacona, which he plays with a jazzy twang that, along with his crisp articulation and rhythmic élan, brings this work to sparkling life, although he and the ensemble hardly overlook its rich variety of expression. “The Finding in the Temple” also finds Sepec playing the early Stainer, producing from it subtle tonal nuances and crisp, though never edgy, articulation rather than the kind of trumpet-like strength that, for example, John Holloway produced in his set on Virgin Classics Veritas 2-59551, reviewed by Tom Moore in
Sepec uses the early Stainer again in the first of the “Sorrowful Mysteries,” the “Agony in the Garden,” revealing its potential for poignant expressivity rather than starchy energy. The more astringent tone of the 1682 Stainer makes its first appearance in the second of the “Sorrowful Mysteries,” “The Scourging,” in which he brings its strength to bear on the Sarabanda, which he plays with commanding, almost fierce, determination. The third of the “Sorrowful Mysteries,” the “Crowning with Thorns,” brings the last appearance of the 1680 Stainer, in which Sepec claims to hear—and strives to represent to his listeners—the Roman soldiers dancing mockingly before their crowned king. The fourth “Sorrowful Mystery,” “The Carrying of the Cross,” brings back, in this performance, the 1682 Stainer, while the one that follows, the “Crucifixion and Death,” again relies for its putative hammering of nails and curtain-tearing on the relatively rougher-hued early Stainer. This sonata appears in Johann Heinrich Schmelzer’s
Victori der Christen
, which could challenge two assumptions made by the writers of the program notes, Peter Wollny and Sepec himself, that, first, the sonatas should be understood as relatively late works by Biber, and second, that they follow an explicit program. In any case, Sepec and the ensemble explore the sonata’s drama, whether it depicts a battle, a crucifixion, or, for that matter, anything or nothing at all.
Sepec plays the first “Glorious Mystery,” the “Resurrection,” on the early Stainer, with the two middle strings crossed over to form an X between the violin’s bridge and tailpiece. Sepec speculates about why Biber employed this device in the “Resurrection” Sonata rather than in the “Crucifixion” Sonata, but I remember transcribing a medieval motet that trades on the symbolism of “crossing over” between heaven and earth, and this would accordingly be the return trip. Of course, the resulting tuning also allows Sepec to play octaves with the fingerings he would normally use for fifths (benefit or obstacle?) in the hymn
Surrexit Christus hodie
, which serves as the subject for variations. Sepec treads more solemnly than exuberantly (proclamation rather than exultation?) in the
, in which the tuning facilitates the intervals of “horn fifths,” although he waxes more lively in the later movements. This sonata occasions the last appearance of the 1682 Stainer, leaving the early instrument to complete the set and the Passagalia. The Third “Glorious Mystery” opens with rushes of sound that have often been compared with Pentecostal winds. Sepec plays these with sharp-edged, striking virtuosity—as he does the sonata’s later movements. The penultimate sonata, the “Assumption,” ends with a lilting passacaglia in which Sepec and the ensemble make musical sense of the somewhat eccentric effects (such as pizzicato and the concluding passage in which the violin simply stops midway rather than finishing, leaving the last word to the continuo) Biber so plentifully supplied (the ensemble treats this with a great deal of good-natured subtlety). The last “Glorious Mystery,” the “Coronation,” the longest by almost four minutes, includes serious, weighty passages (for example, a Canzon) that bring the set to an end spiritually, dramatically, and compositionally.
The solo Passagalia dedicated to the Guardian Angel used to be taken as the greatest monument of the solo violin repertoire before Bach’s sonatas and partitas, although now Johann Paul von Westhoff’s six partitas for solo violin, from 1696, may seem like better candidates for the title. Still, it’s a brilliant work that allows the violinist to change timbres to great effect (Violinist Carroll Glenn used to suggest that I consider imitating the lute stop on a harpsichord in solo Baroque violin works). Sepec doesn’t mention that the concurrence of the Month of the Rosary and the Feast of the Guardian Angel in October may forge the connection between this work and the set of 15 sonatas. In the Passagalia, Sepec doesn’t emphasize the work’s signature virtuosity so much as its expressivity, to which he calls attention, paradoxically, through understatement, allowing it to ebb and flow at its own pace as though not daring to interfere.
Is Sepec right to find so much programmatic specificity in these sonatas, or even wise to search for it? Truth to tell, it may not matter to listeners who wish to focus on the performances themselves, in which he, in collaboration with his imaginative ensemble, shifts mercurially from
and from timbre to timbre, providing a sense of variety and insight into the structure of the music that requires no special extraneous associations. And do the Stainers provide enough interest to justify their use? In fulfilling Sepec’s quest to explore the way the works might have sounded in Biber’s time, they surely do add a sense of authenticity. With all the obvious objections thus countered, it’s no stretch to bestow on these engaging readings a very strong commendation that should place them alongside distinctive sets by Andrew Manze (Harmonia Mundi 907 321.22,
28:6), Eduard Melkus (reissued on CD as Musical Heritage Society 524671W,
22: 4), and John Holloway (Virgin Classics Veritas 2-59551,
14:6), not to mention Monica Huggett (Gaudeamus 350 and 351, which I reviewed in
28:3 and 28:6, respectively) and Suzanne Lautenbacher (reissued on CD as Vox CDX S171,
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
Works on This Recording
Mystery Sonatas (15) for Violin and Basso Continuo by Heinrich Ignaz Biber
Hille Perl (),
Michael Behringer (Harpsichord),
Lee Santana (Theorbo),
Lee Santana (Archlute),
Daniel Sepec (Violin),
Michael Behringer (Organ)
Written: circa 1676; Salzburg, Austria
Venue: Church of St. Martin Colnrade
Length: 5 Minutes 42 Secs.
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