Biber’s Missa Alleluja and Nisi Dominus sung by Gerhard Kenda

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COMPOSERS: Biber
LABELS: Accent
ALBUM TITLE: Biber
WORKS: Missa Alleluja; Nisi Dominus; Sonata ‘La Pastorella’; Hic est panis
PERFORMER: Gerhard Kenda (bass); St Florianer Sängerknaben; Ars Antique Austria/Gunar Letzbor (violin)
CATALOGUE NO: ACC 24325

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It might lack the ‘strength in numbers’ of his supersized Missa Salisburgensis à 53, but elaborately scored in 36 parts, Biber’s Missa Alleluja is no retiring violet. And given the premium placed on ear-filling pomp and circumstance, it’s a case of ‘Alleluja’ by name, ‘Alleluja’ by nature. Probably composed in the 1690s as Biber was nearing the end of his long service under the Archbishops of Salzburg, the Mass setting throws an imposing artillery including clarini, cornetti, trumpets, trombones and strings at the Venetian polychoral tradition. Yet while the result is predictably awe-inspiring, Biber is often at his most affecting when at his most intimate, as in the Sanctus’s gently gurgling Benedictus.

Eloquent discs of the chamber music (most recently the 1676 Sonatae tam aris quam aulis servientes) have already established Ars Antiqua Austria’s Biberian credentials, and this latest offering is just as compelling, even if moments of discomfort very occasionally invade the singing. The soprano line falls to three boys from the Sängerknaben at St Florian’s Monastery (where Bruckner once ruled the organ loft); and compounding the aural ‘authenticity’, the acoustic, while not that of Salzburg Cathedral, lends a spacious bloom that can hinder clarity while enhancing the brass’ pungent, pile-driving precision in the exuberant ceremonial.

A warm, judiciously nuanced account of the Nisi Dominus sung with ringing authority by bass Gerhard Kenda, and director Gunar Letzbor’s own niftily negotiated fiddling in the Christmas Pastorella round out a welcome reminder that Mozart isn’t Salzburg’s only musical ornament.

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Paul Riley