Biber: Mystery Sonatas

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Signum
WORKS: Mystery Sonatas
PERFORMER: Cordaria/Walter Reiter
Violinists are understandably drawn towards the 15 sonatas in which Biber evoked and depicted scenes from the life of Christ. They are beautifully crafted pieces full of fantasy, contemplative and, in their unparalleled exploration of scordatura (retuning of one or more strings), colourful and technically challenging. In addition to the sonatas, all of which require continuo, Biber included an unaccompanied Passacaglia, an intense and profoundly meditative coda to the 15 central events in Christian history. This piece and the Sonata which begins the set are alone in not requiring scordatura. Walter Reiter and his continuo group Cordaria are up against stiff competition from John Holloway (Virgin), Gunar Letzbor (Arcana), Reinhard Goebel (DG Archiv) and Eduard Melkus (DG Archiv), all of whose versions of the Mystery or Rosary Sonatas are currently available. Each of them has its virtues, that of Melkus, dating back to 1967, blazing the trail for following generations of violinists. One of the features of Reiter’s playing that I particularly like is the strongly projected contemplative element. He makes us think of the contrasting events in the life of Christ which inspired Biber. Melkus, exuberant though he is, presents us only with the colourful flamboyance of central European Baroque, while Letzbor and Goebel emphasise the music’s virtuosity. Susanne Lautenbacher, in an elderly recording on Vox, captures its nobility but makes little or no dynamic variation. Reiter is thoughtful, reflective and poetic, yet technically he just fails to match either Holloway or Melkus. But his responses to this music are nonetheless appealing and his performances are stylish, idiomatic and vivid. Readers are unlikely to be disappointed. Nicholas Anderson