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Biber: Unam Ceylum /Holloway · Assenbaum · Mortensen
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Biber was a violin virtuoso and kapellmeister whose music continues to fascinate and often amaze. His set of "Biblical Sonatas" has long been a favourite with baroque specialists and here one such, John Holloway, rescues other Biber sonatas from undeserved obscurity. Unam Ceylum includes two unpublished sonatas and four from Biber's 1681 collection that cemented his position among his contemporaries.
All of the works are full of dazzling technical effects and unexpected turns. The F Major Sonata, for example, balances attractive melodies with an abundance of surprises, both musical and technical, and concludes with a grand chaconne capped by a whirlwind finish. Holloway is equal to the significant demands Biber imposes on his soloist. He's accompanied by both harpsichord and organ, whose weighty presence occasionally thickens the textures. This is an exciting foray into baroque extravagance. --Dan Davis
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The pieces on this cd are:
Sonata III F major from Sonatae Violino solo 1681
Sonata IV D major from Sonatae Violino solo 1681
Sonata No. 81 A major – unpublished
Sonata VI C minor from Sonatae Violino solo 1681
Sonata VII G major from Sonatae Violino solo 1681
Sonata No. 84 E major – unpublished
There is a very comprehensive booklet with the cd, including performers’ notes by John Holloway, where he explains among other things his decision on the instrumentation used in this recording. There is also a very interesting article on Biber’s violin sonatas by Peter Wollny. This is a highly recommended recording, and I am glad to add it to my collection, where it will be listened to often.
Biber is now well known for his 'scordatura', re-tuning of the strings to increase the range and complexity of the instrument, but this technical feat would be limited were it not coupled with blissfully expressive music, in which the violin can make little skipping dances one moment, then deliver a ghostly beauty the next. Performances and recording are outstanding here, and the colour and warmth of the melodies highly addictive. No lover of the violin, or exquisitely melodic music, should be without this, or Holloway's recording of the Mystery Sonatas Biber - The Mystery Sonatas Simply gorgeous music. A Gramophone 'Star' recommendation, and little wonder!
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
This recording is of some of the earlier Biber sonatas for solo violin, less well known than the Rosary Sonatas or his later collection, Fidicinium sacro-profanum. In addition to four published in 1681, two previously unpublished sonatas (Nos. 81 and 84) are included, and the last (band 6) on this recording is the only performance on record of No. 84 of which I am aware. It alone is worth the purchase of the album, even if one already has another recording of some of the other pieces on it.
"Baroque" is a characterisation of music of this period that damns with faint praise, being derived from a Spanish word for an imperfect pearl. It would be better to speak of the style - especially in Biber's case - as a musical version of mannerism. Biber combines, as did the mannerist painters, a highly formal character with exaggerations and violent contrasts, all delivered in what seems to be an effortless flow of song. The appearance of naturalness and ease in doing what is in fact dauntingly difficult was esteemed during this period as the paramount virtue of an artist - or of a gentleman. The Italians called it "sprezzatura." Biber has it, as did his fellow Salzburger, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (who knew and quoted Biber's work).
Listening to this music at one moment you may be reminded of a country fiddle tune, next of "Zigeunerweisen," and after that, all the pomp of a seventeenth-century court. Finally a simple heartfelt melody breaks through. In the few short minutes that each of these sonatas last, Biber communicates a density of information that one can't find in some later composers' symphonies of far more elaborate instrumentation and much greater length.
Holloway's performance of these pieces is polished without losing the freshness of spirit they properly convey. The liner notes say that the artist plans to record a second disc with more of the 1681 sonatas. Based on this one, it should be well worth having.
Comparisons with Andrew Manze's Biber set are inevitable. Manze is another musician whom I like and respect, but with Holloway this music seems to acquire an extra dimension - a deeper emotional involvement, perhaps. To my knowledge, it has not been mentioned that some of the difference in feel between the two versions may be accounted for by the different pitch used in each recording (A=440 with Manze, a mellow A=415 with Holloway).
On a final note, there are probably a great many people wondering what "unam ceylum" means. It is a phrase that appears (in a slightly different form) in Biber's Latin dedication to his book of sonatas, and it means "one lyre".
A disagreement exists about the authenticity of Holloway's choice of continuo. He uses organ and harpsichord together. Musicologists might argue that organ and lute or archlute would be more historically justified. My ears, nevertheless, find the organ/harpsichord continuo very convincing, especially since the harpsichordist realizes his part at times in marvelously tasteful imitation of an archlute.
Once you hear any of Biber's virtuoso works for violin, I can't imagine that you'll be satisfied with one disk. You'll want this, plus the Monica Huggett Rosary Sonatas (2 CDs), plus the Sonata for two Violas d'amore on the CD "Viola d'Amore" by Affetti Musicali....
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