Biber: Mystery (Rosary) Sonatas

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Mystery (Rosary) Sonatas
PERFORMER: Andrew Manze (violin), Richard Egarr (organ, harpsichord), Alison McGillivray (cello)
In the dedication to his patron, Max Gandolph, Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, Biber explained that the subject of each of these sonatas for violin and continuo is a section from the Catholic devotion known as the Rosary. The Rosary offers a system of meditation in 15 Mysteries from the lives of Jesus and his mother. Biber arranged the 15 sonatas into three equal groups of Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries, concluding the cycle with an unaccompanied Passacaglia which provides an intense and meditative coda to the 15 central events in Christian history. This piece and the opening Sonata of the set are alone in not requiring scordatura, or retuning of the violin. This device, by which Biber facilitated some fingerings as well as achieving unconventionally colourful sonorities, is explained on the concluding track of the second disc of Andrew Manze’s set. Ever since the earliest recordings of Biber’s Rosary Sonatas by Susanne Lautenbacher (Vox) and Eduard Melkus (DG Archiv) during the Sixties, violinists have become increasingly drawn to these beautifully crafted and technically challenging pieces. Upwards of 14 versions now exist with a promise of more to come. Among the front-runners at the moment are readings by John Holloway (Virgin), Gunnar Letzbor (Arcana), Odile Edouard (K617) and Alice Piérot (Alpha). Manze enters the arena with a more modest continuo realisation than any of these, preferring organ or harpsichord without any bowed or plucked string support other than a cello in one of the sonatas. The mixed assortment of theorbo, lute, harp, gamba and the like, which finds so much favour nowadays, and which is a feature of Monica Huggett’s Sonnerie set, is evidently not for him. One notable effect of Manze’s comparative austerity in this matter is a sharper focus on the violin writing and the highlighting of the devotional inspiration behind these deeply affecting pieces. Manze’s playing is tender, searing or jubilant in accordance with the contrasting subject matter of each sonata. More than any of his competitors, he addresses the abstract and metaphorical aspects of the music, furthermore revelling in the richly varying metre of its poetry. And even if those virtues were not abundantly evident in his playing, we might suspect them from his apposite quotation from George Herbert’s Easter which, in common with Biber’s Rosary Sonatas, celebrates with musical imagery the complex and starkly contrasting emotions bound up with spiritual belief. It would be unfair to judge Huggett’s version against Manze’s with only one volume of her set so far available. Her sharply defined gestures and more spiky articulation are often vividly illustrative but her tuning is marginally less secure than that of Manze and her continuo group is sometimes a shade over-imposing. In summary, Manze, with his sympathetic and experienced partner Richard Egarr, reaches the spiritual heart of this music more consistently and with less artifice than any of his rivals. That is not to say that I have lost my taste for the more colourful realisations of some other ensembles. Alice Piérot’s group, Les Veilleurs de Nuit, consisting of viola da gamba, theorbo and claviorganum, and Odile Edouard’s équipe, Sine Titulo, have considerable appeal without donning Manze’s hair shirt. But then, perhaps monastic habit and a heightened ascetic awareness complements Biber’s grand design more faithfully. Nicholas Anderson