Back to Biber
Posted: 02 Nov 2006 @ 00:00
by Roderic Dunnett
HE SHOULD BE as familiar to us as Bach. Heinz Ignaz Frank von Biber
(1644-1704) served royalty at Kromeriz, near Brno, and by the time he was 30
was Kapellmeister to Maximilian Gandolf, the Prince-Bishop of Salzburg.
Biber’s Rosary Sonatas are among the most important sacred-informed
chamber pieces ever penned. For Gandolf’s reverberant new cathedral, he
composed a sheaf of huge Masses; Paul Hindemith dubbed him "the most important
[German] composer before Bach".
To judge by these marvellous works, Hindemith may well have been right.
Biber has been given three slots in this year’s BBC Proms, including a Mass
with Emma Kirkby; and two vast Biber Masses — "like frozen architecture", as
someone said of Howells — have just received wonderful performances.
In Bath Abbey, the articulate Andrew Manze and his period-instrument English
Concert gave the first ever performance of Biber’s late
Missa Christi resurgentis, restored in James Clements’s new edition
(also given in the Barbican).
In Nottingham, as part of celebrations of John Keys’s fruitful tenure as
Master of the Music at St Mary’s, High Pavement, the even more extraordinary
Missa Salisburgensis, probably Biber’s most admired composition,
received a breathtaking performance (after one in Peterborough Cathedral the
night before). Keys himself conducted the excellent new English Pro Musica and
the choir of St Mary’s.
To imagine the awesome power and finessed detail of these two astonishing
sacred works, one has to think of a work like Bach’s B-minor Mass, Tallis’s
Spem in Alium, Tye’s Missa Euge Bona, or the Monteverdi
Vespers (also performed in the top-notch festival at St Mary’s). There
were many highlights of the Bath Festival event: an extraordinary mezzo aria,
sustained by Manze’s solo violin, in the Benedictus; the dark basses’ launch to
the Agnus Dei; some astonishing duetting clarion trumpets; plus an exquisitely
subtle interspersed brass piece by Heinrich Schmelzer (c.1620-80), whose
instrumental sonatas influenced Biber’s own collection.
With a fine tenor solo in Die Pauern Kirchfahrt ("The Peasants go
to Church") and the double-bassist Peter McCarthy’s delivery of the Night
Watchman’s hymned serenade to the Virgin, this was an unforgettable occasion.
At Nottingham, what amazed me was the quality John Keys elicited from his
confident choir soloists. The Salzburg Mass is like a vast
17th-century verse anthem. All excelled: terrific paired sopranos in the
Kyries, duetting countertenors and tenors in the Gloria, and never a hint of
losing the noble, secure lead that Keys gave from the outset.
The superbly drawn-out lines in the anguished miserere-s of the
Agnus Dei, countless crisp section joins, and some thrilling orchestral playing
(allowing for a few nervy brass glitches) were all uplifting. It was a superbly
motivated performance, utterly true to the work: an hour of exhilaration.
Biber’s Missa Bruxellensis is performed by the Academy of
Ancient Music in the BBC Proms on Tuesday 10 August.