Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber-let's agree among friends to simply call him Biber for short-was an Austrian (by way of Moravia) contemporary of Bach, Handel, Telemann and Vivaldi. Alleged to be the greatest violinist of his time, he rose in rank to become court composer to the Salzburg Cathedral, and clearly represented the high point of the Austrian Baroque. His ceremonial music-especially his Missa Salisburgensis and Missa Bruxellensis-was perhaps the match, in sonic splendor, of Handel's famous Water Music and Royal Fireworks Music, but nonetheless distinctive enough that one would never confuse the two composers.
I must say that Biber is fast becoming a guilty pleasure of mine, and quite by accident. It was largely through the dropping of some "this is what I'm listening to" hints by a friend of mine that I thought I'd give him a try, starting first with the two masses noted above. These masses do require some more of my listening time before I feel comfortable in commenting on them. But I have no such problem with this remarkable collection of his 1681 Violin Sonatas.
I suppose I should have started with his more famous "Mystery" or "Rosary" Sonatas, but I must say that I am so taken in by the performance by Andrew Manze and his HIP (historically-informed performance) Romanesca group (with Nigel North on lute and therebo and John Toll on harpsichord and organ) in these 1681 Sonatas that I think I'll simply wait until Manze and Romanseca have their own release of the Mystery Sonatas. Yes, this double-CD recording is that good!
Biber's sonata style would never be confused with Bach's for this instrument (his famous Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin being the obvious example), largely due to the latter's much more highly developed contrapuntal style (and the voice leading that can be the benefit of well-written counterpoint). Biber's style is altogether much freer in form, almost (well, perhaps actually) improvisatory by comparison. An obvious advantage-one that speaks to what must have been prodigious playing abilities by Biber-is that these works are thrilling; utter flights of fancy as compared to his more cerebral counterpart from Leipzig. The "free form," as it were, with its near-absence of conventional voice-leading, provides "a surprise at every turn." And there are many of them throughout the eight numbered sonatas and three additional works.
One might say, with justification, that Biber was the Paganini of his day (style differences of Baroque vs. Romantic notwithstanding). Moreover, Biber was an early exponent of a trick that Paganini used a century and a half later: "scordatura" or retuning of the instrument for special tone-color effects due to emphasizing different harmonic overtones in the retuning. To say that scordatura results in some phenomenal violinistic effects would be an understatement.
Andrew Manze and his partners play these works to the hilt, with sheer brilliance in both tone and technique, the latter simply staggering in many spots. Those of you who might think that a true Baroque violin is an acoustically "dead" or dull instrument in comparison to a modern instrument are in for quite a surprise if you've never heard Manze perform. Put simply, these two CDs have well over two hours of some of the finest fiddling I've ever heard. (And yes, "fiddling" is not all that far off the mark, given the free improvisation and high degree of ornamentation that was typical of Biber.)
Cerebral vs. passionate? A fair comparison between Bach and Biber. I'll always have my days when only the Partitas and Sonatas for Solo Violin will fill the bill; the days when I want my mind to be fully engaged in the music. And, now, with this Biber discovery, I'll also have my days when I want something quite different; something quite extraordinary in a different way than Bach provides. Let's agree to call them "days when I want the violinist to wail!" And Andrew Manze is the violinist to do it. Now, about those Mystery Sonatas...
A final note: Not all that long ago, these two CDs were a full-priced Harmonia Mundi item. Now rather recently released in Harmonia Mundi's "1 + 1" budget line, but with no cost-cutting whatsoever on production values (full booklet included), this Biber album is a bargain.