H.I.F. Biber’s Recordings

W.A. Grieve-Smith

[December 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:5.]

BIBER: Rosary Sonatas. Suzanne Lautenbacher, violin; Rudolph Ewerhart, positiv, harpsichord, regal; Johannes Koch, viola da gamba. VoxBox CDX 5171 (1962), 2 CDs

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704) had Mozart’s job as Kappelmeister at the Salzburg Cathedral under Prince-Archbishop Maximilian Gandolf. Biber’s experience was apparently a happier one than Mozart’s. Biber’s boss even elevated him to the minor nobility so he could be called “Biber von Biber,” which counted for quite a lot in title-conscious Austria.

Probably a student of Schmelzer, Biber became a virtuoso on the violin when it was a relatively new and not entirely accepted instrument in polite society, like the Saxophone today. There was not yet any distinction in style between liturgical and secular music. It was also a time when keyboard music was still written in organ tablature but new musical fashions were sweeping North from Italy, namely the Stylus Phantasticus and the Baroque concept of Affekt.

Stylus Phantasticus was a simulated improvisatory style adapted from lute music: many runs, flourishes with sudden changes in pace and shifts from monody to polyphonic fugetto sections. It was a kind of finger-limbering that was often quite necessary for organists attempting to play in unheated churches!

The concept of Affekt can be traced back at least as far as Plato, who discussed the mood-altering properties of various Greek modes. But Affekt was derived from the rhetoric of formal speech: that specific rhetorical cliches would automatically push the desired emotional buttons in the listener. Biber’s Mystery or Rosary Sonatas perfectly embody both of these new fashions in music-making. And Biber added another novel wrinkle: Scordatura.

Scordatura is the deliberate alteration of the customary tuning of an instrument’s strings to change the sympathetic overtones or make it possible to play chords which would be impossible with normal tuning. It can also affect the perceived loudness of the instrument.

It’s not very likely that such intimate solo violin-plus figured bass sonatas were performed in the cavernous acoustic of Salzburg Cathedral. It’s more probable that Biber played these compositions for the private devotions of the Prince-Archbishop, who was promoting the cause of the Rosary.

The first sonata and the final, appended unaccompanied chaconne are written for normal tuning; the fourteen remaining are all scored for various types of Scordatura tunings.

The VoxBox recording by Lautenbacher & Co. was my introduction to Biber and to the Mystery Sonatas back in the 1960s. I had not heard the recordings again in almost 39 years! Well, it holds up very, very well in the 20-bit digital transfer — not just sonically but in terms of performance style. If I only had $9.98 to splurge on an introduction to Biber, this is the CD package to go for. I could dwell quite happily with this version alone.

I had occasionally spied this version in the various CD emporia but never picked it up when I could. And, when I decided to revisit it was nowhere to be found. But my colleague Walt Mundkowsky emailed me the info that Amazon.com had it listed. And indeed they do, but not under ‘Lautenbacher.’ It is listed under ‘Biber’ and ‘Ewerhart’ however. Other, newer recordings offer obviously different interpretations, but the period instruments and Baroque performance practice holds up with the best of the later recordings. A pleasant surprise indeed!

BIBER: Mystery Sonatas. Eduard Melkus, violin; Huguette Dreyfus, harpsichord; Lionel Rogg, organ; Karl Scheit, lute. Musical Heritage Society MHS 524671W (1968), 2 CDs

This staple of DG’s Archiv LP catalog has long been deleted from the PolyGram list, but was licensed by Musical Heritage Society and still available — again thanks to the Walt Mundkowsky Detective Agency! Like the Lautenbacher recording, it has been years since I listened to the Melkus version, so it was interesting to compare my recollections with the actual sound. On re-hearing, I was struck by the mellow, leisurely interpretation — no fiery rhetoric here. I surmise that the continuo realization was by Lionel Rogg, but the hymn entrance, Surrexit Christus, in Sonata XI, “The Resurrection” has a thrilling combination of organ and violin harmonization that truly expresses the idea resurrection. None of the other recordings I’ve heard has quite this apt expression of Affekt. Perhaps Biber was influenced by his Lutheran contemporaries use of chorale melodies. Certainly Rogg, as organist at St.Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva and player of the complete organ works of Bach could have added this touch. Like the Lautenbacher, this CD transfer is stylistically and sonically first rate. It does cost $10 more ($19.98) than the VoxBox, but still less than a single CD in the import bins. I’m still impressed that these truly worthwhile performances have not evaporated altogether, and that they’re available to the less affluent. For just how long is another matter entirely.

BIBER: Rosenkranz-Sonaten. Musica Antiqua Köln (Reinhard Goebel). ARCHIV 28943 16562 (1990) 2 CDs

This is one to snap up before it disappears, even at its elevated price, almost $20 per each CD. It is not currently on PolyGram’s US of A list, but some distributors or dealers are importing it from der Vaterland. This was recorded by Goebel before his devastating motorcycle accident. He now stops the strings with his right fingers and bows with his left hand, the reverse of the usual violinist’s posture.

In this version Goebel gives us the mostest of everything. Not especially speedy, but the Stylus Phantasticus introductions have the maximum contrast of loud/soft and slow/fast. And the Affekt principle is pushed almost to the limit – all with fantastic intonation and pitch accuracy. Goebel also stresses the dance origins of the various movements. This is a flashy, gutsy performance that may never be duplicated, even by Goebel himself today. If you miss this classic you may forever kick yourself!

BIBER: The Mystery Sonatas. John Holloway, violin; Davitt Moroney; Tragicomedia. VIRGIN CLASSICS 353 700-238 (1989), 2 CDs (VCD 90838-2)

This version is more distantly recorded by Mike Hatch with more bass support than the other versions. Holloway also expresses the rhetorical style by playing runs grouped together with slurs. Holloway brings us a more formal, refined interpretation than Goebel’s. Nothing drags, however, and there’s an appropriate sense of space separating the players. In sum: more refinement, less melodrama, but musical all the while.

BIBER: Sonaten über die Mysterien des Rosenkranzes. Gunar Letzbor, violin; Lorenz Duftschmidt, bass viol; Wolfgang Zerer, organ; Wolfgang Gluexam, harpsichord; Axel Wolf, lute; Michael Oman, vola da gamba; Ulli Fussenegger, contrabass. ARCANA A 401 (1996), 2 CDs

Arcana is the label supervised by Michel Bernstein who gave us the Astrée and then the Audivis marques. The performance was recorded by Charlotte Gilart de Keranflec’h, a Flammande name if I ever saw one. We previously encountered Wolfgang Zerer, the organist, in the superb Weckmann CDs recorded by NDR-Hamburg for Naxos.

Gunnar Letzbor really leans his violin on the dramatic aspects of Stylus Phantasticus, almost to the point of brutality. He also nearly completely de-emphasizes the dance qualities in some of the suite movements. I truly have mixed reactions about such a Teutonic performance of German music. Were the original German performers this four-square and insensitive with their own music? It’s certainly possible, but I’m prepared to assume that the originators had more flexibility and sensitivity than is exhibited here, especially considering that Biber was importing the latest Italian stylistic fashions to an admittedly more stodgy neighborhood.

The recorded perspective here is closer than I would like, giving an even sharper edge to the chordal clashes of the Scordatura tuning.

HENR. IGNAT. FRANCISCUS BIBER: MYSTERIENSONATEN. Marianne Rônez, Barokvioline; Affetti Musicali. WINTER & WINTER 910 029-2 (1998), 2 CDs

Stefan Winter’s quirky boxlet looks like a small, expensive book, but does nothing to protect the CDs from dust at the top. The recorded perspective is further back than the Arcana, similar to the Holloway version on Virgin. Here everything is more discreet and rounded off, but with more lilt to the dance movements than was forthcoming from Herr Letzbor. Overall I find this interpretation too much on the genteel side, even if it comes as a relief after Letzbor’s gouging. Even though there’s more danceability, there’s less drama in the Stylus Phantasticus sections. The violin tone is consistently on the thin side, negating much of the added resonance of the Scordatura tuning. For its top-dollar price this interpretation comes up lacking on too many fronts.

This may be icing on the cake, but nowhere in any of the exhaustive notes to the recordings is the notion of the Juggler of Notre Dame: playing dance music for the pleasure of a female saint. This would certainly be appropriate for the Medieval tradition of Austria and Southern Germany.

Reinhard Goebel certainly goes all the way in the drama and dance departments. And Eduard Melkus’ reading on MHS is certainly tuneful and balanced, with the most imaginative realization of the figured bass. Here’s hoping other players with less heavy bows give us contemporary versions.

HEINRICH BIBER: Requiem in F minor. New London Consort (Philip Pickett).

DECCA 458 081-2 (1992/1988), 2 CDs

Engineer Jonathan Stokes has managed to turn Walthamstow Assembly Hall into Salzburg Cathedral, with instrumental choirs and singing groups convincingly deployed spatially. Here is the kind of stately formality we find in the Bach B-Minor Mass, but with movements of much shorter duration. It also has reminders of the large forces employed by Karl Richter in his vintage Bach recordings. If I wanted to attend my own funeral, this is the kind of sendoff I’d love to have!

Besides the solemn-but-never-stuffy Requiem, Pickett delivers some rousing trumpet sonatas that Biber was also famous for, as well as a sampling of string sonatas of the Schmelzer school. With all the Gesamte Werke editions in vogue today, maybe it’s high time for the Complete Biber Works? Biber certainly holds his own with contemporaries like Tünder, Buxtehude, Reinken and Weckmann.