If the 350th anniversary of the birth of the leading Austro-German composer before Bach, Heinrich von Biber, last year didn’t quite taken off in the manner that the Purcell tercentenary this year already has, this can only be due, surely, to Anglo-centric chauvinism rather than to any musical inferiority on Biber’s part. His range of activity may have been a little circumscribed, but within the field of violin-dominated instrumental music his imagination and resource are second to none, as both these marvellous recordings amply testify.
Famed for their dazzling virtuosity, scordatura tunings and other ‘extended’ playing techniques (including the Bartókian ‘snap pizzicato’), Biber’s violin sonatas and partitas maintain an astonishingly high level of invention, melodic freshness and quirkiness. For the latter quality, try the Sonata representativa on the Romanesca set, with its uncannily faithful imitations of animal sounds. Yet the musical logic is sure and even Biber’s fondness for chaconne forms never gives rise to predictability.
The playing of the instrumentalists of both Romanesca and the Purcell Quartet is simply stunning: virtuosity so effortless as to be unnoticeable and a sense of capricious fantasy so vital to the convincing projection of such highly personal music, veering from mind-blowing complexity to artless simplicity, often in the space of a few seconds. For once the picture – Dürer’s Fantastic Bird with Scroll – adorning the Romanesca CD box is entirely justified.