Biber The Mystery Sonatas
Christina Day Martinson (violin); Boston Baroque/Martin Pearlman
Linn CKD 501 120:21 mins (2 discs)
Alongside Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin the Biber Mystery Sonatas are the ultimate rite of passage for any Baroque violinist possessing ambition and technique to spare. A formidable virtuoso, Biber spared his performer nothing in sonatas so-named since each is a meditation on or accompaniment to one of the 15 designated ‘mysteries’ (Joyful, Sorrowful, or Glorious) that constitute the Catholic devotion known as the Rosary. Their demands are legion not least because the strings are tuned differently for each sonata, excepting the first and concluding Passacaglia which conform to the familiar cycle of fifths. (The booklet for Christina Day Martinson’s new recording, incidentally, is particularly illuminating in explaining the whys and wherefores; and photographs save a thousand words trying to explain how the reconfiguration for The Resurrection Sonata creates the pattern of a cross both beyond the bridge and within the peg box.)
Martinson even prefaces each sonata by sounding the open strings – well intentioned no doubt, though perhaps ultimately a little intrusive as if inviting us to respond to each as an exotic novelty. A pity because didacticism couldn’t be further from her gutsy, committed playing, spurred on by the richly varied continuo of Boston Baroque which includes thrumming guitar to speed the Virgin’s Assumption into heaven. The Sorrowful Mysteries invite and receive a concentration of lacerating pathos, but Martinson is even more persuasive in the effervescence of their Glorious counterparts, a little Zigeuner fire perhaps remembering Biber’s Bohemian roots.