The preoccupation with representation (or, perhaps more accurately, mimesis) in instrumental music preoccupied Baroque composers from the time of Monteverdi onwards, reaching a peak in the work of Biber, Schmelzer and others working in the orbit of the Habsburg court. The appeal to a modern audience (and indeed, to modern performers) is easily grasped, but whether the conceit can sustain a generously filled CD is a moot point – or so I thought on reading the track-listing for this one. I needn’t have worried.
The best-known works here address topics previously treated by Janequin in the vocal sphere (respectively, Schmelzer’s sonata depicting birdsong and Biber’s portraying the progress of a battle). Biber arguably outdoes his rival in the means he deploys, including a ‘prepared’ bass viol, ‘Bartòk’ pizzicato and a quasi-aleatoric section representing the hubbub of the drunken soldiery. Unsurprisingly, these pieces have been recorded before, but the immediacy of the sound recording and the performers’ infectious zest make these interpretations stand out. These warhorses of musica representativa are complemented by lesser-known works, for some of which it is not necessary to know the programme to enjoy them. Thus the short keyboard Toccatina by Poglietti (played by Maude Gratton), ostensibly commemorating the suppression of a rebellion in Hungary.
But it is to Biber that the lion’s share of the disc is devoted, and no wonder: every work of his stages a coup de théâtre that prefigures musical styles that lay centuries in the future. (There is even a walk-on part for a bass who sings a little devotional hymn, then disappears.) And if that weren’t enough, the aria before the battle is as beguiling a tune as one could wish for. Delightful.