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Biber: Unam Ceylum

5.0 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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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 favorite of Baroque specialists. Here, Baroque violinist John Holloway rescues other Biber sonatas from undeserved obscurity. The disc includes two unpublished sonatas and four from Biber's 1681 collection that cemented his position among his contemporaries.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 thickens the textures. An exciting foray into Baroque extravagance. --Dan Davis

Product Details

  • Performer: John Holloway, Aloysia Assenbaum, Lars Ulrik Mortensen
  • Composer: Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber
  • Audio CD (September 24, 2002)
  • SPARS Code: DDD
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Label: ECM Records
  • ASIN: B00006I61G
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #151,781 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

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Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber von Bibern - to give him his correct name and style - was one of the most virtuosic and also most idiosyncratic composers of the Baroque period. Although he wrote masses, motets, and opera, he is especially noted for his works for violin, and was remembered decades after his death as a great executant, much as we today remember Paganini.
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 In addition to four published in 1681, two previously unpublished sonatas (Nos. 81 and 84) are included, and the last (band 6) on this recording is the only performance on record of No. 84 of which I am aware.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.
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Yes Manze/Romanesca does an excellent recording & did a lot to put Biber 'on the map' but I just "like this one better." (esp sonata IV!!!) Holloway's recordings are the only ones that have both organ and harpsichord playing in the background & I really like the effect. Usually there's only one or the other. As another reviewer said, it's hard to notice that this is very hard music to play. I wouldn't say it has anything to do with the skill of the musicians, but the harpsichord & organ workng together makes the cd more atmospheric for some reason. These discs (this one + Der Turken Anmarsch) don't have the Sonata Representativa on them like Romanesca's do, but then they have unpublished works by Biber. So the only way to hear everything is to get both recordings, which isn't a bad idea anyway so then you can compare the two interpretations. Generally speaking I would say this cd is good for the evening/nighttime & Romanesca's is for morning/daytime. That's what I think of anyway.
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John Holloway's ongoing series of recordings for ECM has established him as one of the finest baroque violinists alive. Other reviewers have described their reactions to these stupefying sonatas of Biber, music that reconciles dazzling virtuosity, structural subtlety, and ecstatic emotional abandon. For my part I want to try to convey some of what makes John Holloway's violin playing so special. Every baroque violinist should envy the phenomenal resonance, purity, and richness of Holloway's tone; he knows how to make his violin really SING, not just dance. Holloway phrases eloquently, using rubato and agogic accents (emphatic lingering over certain notes) to telling effect. He handles the fast toccata-like passagework magnificently: the continuous thirty-second notes bubble forth with utter spontaneity yet also a sharply etched quality. When it comes to ornamentation, Holloway may come off as less spontaneous than other performers, but his ornaments are always beautifully natural and apt. Finally, in choosing a sumptuous continuo tapestry of organ and harpsichord (both players fleshing out the music to its full potential), Holloway has almost created a new kind of chamber music.

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".
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There's little I can add to the four previous rapturous reviews except my personal endorsement. This is, I think, John Holloway's best performance of Biber's violin sonatas, the performance that best matches his tone and phrasing to the eccentricity of the music. His recording of the Rosary Sonatas is no better than third to my taste, well behind Goebel and Huggett. But these sonatas are quite different in character from the Rosaries, more robust and less 'spiritual', more exploratory of the limits of the scordatura violin, more quickly-changing in mood and caprice... more fun if you will.

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....

Read no further, lest you overdraw your credit card!
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