BIBER Rosary Sonatas – Podger
How heartening it is to see new recordings of Biber continuing to come through, even well after the double boost they got from the composer’s two anniversaries in 1994 and 2004! Of all his music, it is surely the Mystery (or Rosary) Sonatas – 15 sonatas for violin and continuo, each representing an episode from the lives of Jesus and Mary corresponding to the sacred devotional ‘mysteries’ of the Rosary, with a solo passacaglia to finish – that not only provide the most stimulating listening but also the most fascinating insights into his way of thinking. Indeed, one could go further and claim them as one of the most profound and coherent instrumental cycles of the entire Baroque period. Approaches among players differ on a scale from seeking out all the descriptive detail they can find to relying more on the subliminal effects of the music’s symbolic and rhetorical gestures and constant scordature (each of the sonatas requires a different tuning system for the violin). All the successful ones, however, draw power from their depth of personal response, which is surely as it should be. This, after all, is music by a composer for whom the violin was a natural means of expression, a part of his being.
Of the new recordings of the Rosaries, perhaps the most keenly anticipated will be that by Rachel Podger, ever a glorious example of someone who lives life through her violin. Yet although her booklet-note makes clear that she appreciates how the violin is made literally to ‘suffer’ through the dark retunings associated with Jesus’s death, she also states that she sees her own role as that of evangelist. This may, I suppose, be why her performances (in which she is joined by lutenist David Miller and keyboard player Marcin Swiatkiewicz) are less directly involving than might have been expected. Of course she can play with grace and beauty – at the opening of ‘The Carrying of the Cross’, for instance, in the smooth Canzona of ‘The Coronation of the Blessed Virgin’ and throughout the Passacaglia (not a new recording, by the way, but taken from her ‘Guardian Angel’ solo disc – 11/13). There are also many subtleties of articulation and timing, almost as if there are words and pauses lying behind the notes, though sometimes these develop into lingerings that stretch the boundaries of continuity. Those used to Podger’s habitual natural exuberance may well find this recording surprisingly inward, even cool.