Biber: Mystery Sonatas (complete)

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COMPOSERS: Biber
LABELS: Virgin Veritas
WORKS: Mystery Sonatas (complete)
PERFORMER: John Holloway (violin), Davitt Moroney (organ, harpsichord); Tragicomedia
CATALOGUE NO: VBD 5 62062 2 Reissue (1990)
When this Virgin recording of Biber’s Mystery Sonatas was first issued in 1990 it had, I believe, only three predecessors – Susanne Lautenbacher (Vox), Eduard Melkus (DG) and Franzjosef Maier (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi). Since then, interest in this beautiful and affecting music has grown quickly and John Holloway’s version has been followed by at least half a dozen others. Each of Biber’s 15 Mystery Sonatas is inspired by an event in the lives of Jesus and his mother, as depicted in the Catholic devotion of the Rosary. They form three groups of five in Biber’s scheme: Joyful Mysteries, Sorrowful Mysteries and Glorious Mysteries. To these, he appended, as a coda, a meditative Passacaglia for unaccompanied violin. This piece, and the opening Sonata, are the only ones which do not require ‘scordatura’, or retuning of the violin strings. Holloway’s performance stands well against the competition and not least for the imaginative support he gets from his colourful continuo group. The approach is gently reflective, virtuosic where required and firmly in touch with the many dance rhythms which lie at the heart of the music. The most serious competition comes from Gunar Letzbor (Arcana) and, most recently, Odile Edouard (K617), but Holloway and Tragicomedia outstrip them both.

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Holloway’s new ECM release embarks on Biber’s highly original set of Eight Sonatas for Violin and Continuo, published in 1681. Four of them are included here, together with two unpublished violin sonatas (Vol. 2 is promised for next year). Holloway brings the music to life with stylish and virtuosic gestures, but he is less refined in his declamation than Andrew Manze (Harmonia Mundi) and tonally a shade less secure. Even so, readers will find little to disappoint them and I shall want to hear Holloway’s fine performance of the richly inventive unpublished E major Sonata many times over. Nicholas Anderson