BIBER Rosary Sonatas
There are now over a dozen recordings of Biber’s superb meditative cycle of 15 violin sonatas and a passacaglia linked to the ‘mysteries’ of the Rosary. Almost all are from the last 20 years and a pleasing diversity of approaches has grown up with them, with players combining the pictorial-dramatic and reflective approaches in varying proportions, assembling continuo sections colourful and austere, and facing the stresses and strains of Biber’s extreme scordatura habit either by using several different violins or toughing it out on one groaning instrument. Often the profound air of these works prompts special presentation; facsimiles of the cameo images from Biber’s manuscript score abound; Pavlo Beznosiuk (Avie, 7/04) interleaves his sonatas with theological readings from Timothy West; Julia Wedman’s impressive recent recording (Dorian, 7/11) reproduces devotional paintings from the meeting hall of the Salzburg Rosary confraternity; and most of the violinists are moved to offer their own thoughts on the meaning and methods of these extraordinary pieces.
It is the first of these sets of interpretative differences that counts most, of course; although they use standard forms such as dances, ground basses and variations, these are works associated with familiar events in the life of Jesus and Mary, and require a firm vision of how to represent them. So while for the record Annegret Siedel uses nine violins and a continuo section of three players on six different instruments, it is her decision to focus on the music’s ‘process of intensification and withdrawal’ that defines her readings. These are performances firmly in the meditative camp, seeking to move not by grabbing the lapels but through concentration and reflection – give yourself up to the music, they seem to say, and meaning will follow.
There are nods to the descriptive – ‘The Scourging’ takes on a thorny, metallic tone; the rushing wind is unmistakable at the beginning of ‘Gift of the Spirit’ – but the tone is predominantly sombre and reverential rather than larger-than-life excitable. The expressive results are mixed: ‘The Way of the Cross’ is noble and stoic, and ‘The Crucifixion’ strikes a good balance between the nails being hammered at the start and the darkening intensification of mood in the variations that follow; yet ‘The Resurrection’ is a curiously muted celebration and ‘Agony in the Garden’ a rather perfunctory lament. It’s all a bit hit-and-miss in fact, though there is no doubting its integrity. And the solo Passacaglia at the end is a smooth and light caress.