Heinrich Biber was a greater composer, with a wider range of musical ideas, than I had realized up to hearing this performance. His "stock" has certainly been rising with modern listeners but his reputation is still based primarily on his sonatas for violin and continuo, which are splendidly virtuosic and artful, but also unquestionably repetitive and restricted in scope. Now that good performances of his vocal compositions and incidental music for brass have appeared on CDs, it's time to recognize his real greatness.
The Vespro della Beata Vergine is not a single composition. Rather, it's a composite, assembled by Roland Wilson, of two polychoral masterpieces -a Dixit Dominus and a Magnificat, both in 32 parts, plus eleven instrumental and vocal/instrumental works for forces ranging from a Nisi Dominus for one violin and one bass singer to a Lauda for four voices, five strings, cornetto, and three trombones. The smaller works were selected from manuscripts representing quite different periods of Biber's career as a composer. Wilson's notes about his sources are ample.
The two large-scale pieces require exactly the same 32 voices and instruments; whether they were intended to be part of a larger work for public performance in the Salzburg Cathedral - comparable to the Missa Salisburgensis - is not known. However, for a modern listener to music on CDs, the incorporation of the two dramatic pieces with smaller scale, more intimate selections is serendipitous. The clarity and acoustic realism of the "chamber" pieces offers a welcome relief from the almost uncapturable grandeur of the "cathedral" music. The sound quality on this disk, by the way, is as good as any I've heard. Even the double choirs sound relatively "present".
Laudate pueri and Lauda Jerusalem are scored for the same voices (four singers, five strings, three trombones and one cornetto) and come from the same source. Each is a miniature masterpiece, less than two minutes long, in which lines of the liturgical text are superimposed and musical ideas are expressed with a concision even Anton Webern might have envied.
Nisi Dominus is a duet for bass singer and violin, over continuo. The violin line is incredibly virtuosic, involving both florid passage-work and double-stop chordal playing, all in scordatura. The bass aria is majestic to a degree that clearly foreshadows Bach's best cantatas. The Laetatus sum a 7 uses the same sonority, but with two basses. These are remarkably original compositions.
The sonata for five strings and trumpet is glorious, a brass player's dream! The virtues of the trumpet as an ensemble instrument, with a full range of expensive capabilities, are proven forevermore.
The concluding Litaniae Laurentanae, scored for the same forces as the two laudas, has to be one of the densest and most intellectual examples of polyphony of the Baroque, yet it's also beautiful and moving, with its constant reiteration of Ora pro nobis (Pray for us).
Among the stars of the performance are soprano Monica Mauch, whose voice has the chocolate and raspberry highlights of a fine Bordeaux wine, and fiddler Anette Sichelschmidt, who could hold her own with Reinhold Goebel. Not that any other singer or instrumentalist is inferior! Roland Wilson has assembled a brilliant cast for his Musica Fiata.
The performance is tuned at a=466 mean tone, and that's a meaningful choice. The brighter pitch and the more perfect harmony both contribute to acoustical clarity here on my home sound system.
All in all, this is the best Biber CD on the market. And if you've never even heard of Biber, this is the disk to buy first.
- Orchestra: Musica Fiata, La Capella Ducale
- Conductor: Roland Wilson
- Audio CD (August 1, 2005)
- SPARS Code: DDD
- Number of Discs: 1
- Format: Import
- Label: Sony Bmg Europe
- ASIN: B0009W4M7G
- Average Customer Review: 3 customer reviews
Amazon Best Sellers Rank:
#1,255,006 in CDs & Vinyl (See Top 100 in CDs & Vinyl)
- #155667 in Classical (CDs & Vinyl)