Rachel Podger Performs Biber’s Rosary Sonatas

A comparison of Biber's Rosary or Mystery Sonatas.

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LABELS: Channel Classics
ALBUM TITLE: Rachel Podger Performs Biber’s Rosary Sonatas
WORKS: Rosary Sonatas
PERFORMER: Rachel Podger
CATALOGUE NO: CCS SA 37315 (hybrid/SACD)


Biber’s Rosary or Mystery Sonatas are enjoying ever increasing popularity among violinists, with three new recordings out just this year. Biber’s manuscript lacks a title as do the 15 Sonatas and concluding Passacaglia; but the music, scored for violin and continuo, is linked to a number of copper-plate engravings which illustrate the five joyful, five sorrowful and five glorious events in the life of the Virgin, the unaccompanied Passacaglia providing a meditative conclusion. Only the opening Sonata and the Passacaglia call for standard violin string tuning. Elsewhere Biber requires scordatura or retuning of the strings, enabling the performer to realise subtly varied colours as well as to facilitate some fingerings.

Ariadne Daskalakis is a compelling advocate. On the one hand she enlivens Biber’s illustrative palette with bold, extrovert gestures, on the other she projects expressive tenderness as, for instance in the Adagio of the Nativity Sonata (No. 3). Her rhythmic suppleness is a constant delight and her restrained, apposite ornamentation, as in the Aria of the Crucifixus commendable. Once only did I sense a moment’s tonal insecurity in the first movement of No. 3. This is a technically accomplished and thoughtful performance. Ensemble Vintage Köln provide discreet and stylish support while Daskalakis herself contributes a first-rate accompanying essay. Recorded sound is excellent.

As Biber’s cycle progresses we realise increasingly that we are in the presence of a colourful and expressively intense spiritual fresco, an instrumental counterpart to the great vocal and choral settings of the Passion Story. Rachel Podger’s response to this subtly depictive music is more meditative, even at times, perhaps introspective, than most of her rivals. Her gestures are restrained – not for her the often extreme flamboyance of southern German Baroque church architecture and furnishings – and her playing is both tenderly expressed and affectingly poignant. Nothing is overstated or overblown but instead she reveals a fine sense of proportion, unhurried, restrained but also passionate where the subject and music demand it. Her ornaments are tasteful and imaginative and her articulation cogent and communicative, and she is supported by a responsive continuo group. It’s worth nothing that her eloquently sustained Passacaglia has been translated from an earlier recording. Amid all this excellence I am sorry to have to alert readers to the absence of any movement titles in the booklet. They are important signposts in respect both of form and character. Come along Channel Classics!

Violinist Lina Tur Bonet and Musica Alchemica’s recording is among the most colourful available. The meditative atmosphere of Rachel Podger’s recording here gives way to an altogether more theatrical approach. Bonet’s vivid sense of drama provides the listener with a sequence of dazzlingly colourful images in which maximum expressive contrast is sought. Such is the case in the seventh sonata, The Scourging, where savage bow strokes yield to passages of beguiling tenderness in the final sarabande.

Biber’s movements are of many types with arias, chaconnes and variations as well as established dance forms such as allemande, courante and gigue.


Bonet and her continuo group deliver everything with aplomb. The Aria and its 29 variations (Sonata 14) are radiant and joyful though occasionally the colours in the continuo seemed fanciful. The Aria Tubicinum proclaiming the Ascension (No. 12) is stirringly projected but I felt every so often that the gestures were a little overstated. This is a lively representation, though, which might be considered as the other side of the Podger coin. Nicholas Anderson