Stupendous composition for Salzburg

16 February 2018

Roderic Dunnett hears a seldom performed Biber Mass in Warwick


HEINRICH IGNAZ BIBER, whose 53-part Missa Salisburgensis has just been given a rapturous performance by the Warwick-based Armonico Consort, was a musician ahead of his time. Born in 1644, a few years after Buxtehude and more than a decade before Purcell, he should have represented an era that merely predated the high Baroque of Bach, Telemann, and Handel.

Yet, as this scintillating reading under Christopher Monks at St Mary’s, Warwick, of a work that is almost never heard showed, Biber’s output embraced the full span of post-Renaissance music, reaching forward from Gabrieli and, at later stages, Monteverdi to the great 18th-century composers. Yet Biber was dead by 1704, aged 59. He never heard the composers whom we regard as the epitome of the Baroque era. He was surely a trailblazer.

There was nearly no Salzburg Mass for Armonico to perform. The only known copy was discovered locally two centuries after its composition by a keen-eyed choirmaster. It was being used to wrap vegetables. By a miracle, he retrieved it. Only much more recently, after doubt, was it confirmed as the great work composed by Biber for 53 voices and instruments to celebrate a significant anniversary of the Salzburg diocese. The conclusion, an energetically sung addition, is a hymn to the early Bishop and Benedictine Abbot of Salzburg St Rupert.

Thanks to this vivid performance, the Mass turns out to be a work of stupendous force and impact. It also, in many ways, contradicts our usual idea of how the text is approached. The Kyries, far from tentative, are buoyant, dancing, with enchanting passages for paired sopranos, and cascading effects from the upper-voice choir, from which the conductor evoked a purity and finesse, as well as apt high spirits. Already, too, two separate brass choirs perform antiphonally. It suggests the splendour of Gabrieli, and of St Mark’s, Venice.


The Gloria starts unexpectedly quietly, in mute lower strings, but it is the contrasted solo voices that lend it its special variety: tenor, then alto, then pairs of sopranos and tenors, and one passage (“Domine Deus”) that might easily suggest Bach’s B-minor Mass. The “Quoniam” is fast-moving, and the final stages in this beautifully modulated performance were positively elevated in spirit, before an excitable Amen. The highlight of the Credo was the stunningly beautiful “Et incarnatus”, with beguiling soft sopranos, then altos added; then striking basses, and solo bass, plangently grieving at “et sepultus est”. Flutes come into their own, escorting the sopranos at “Et in Spiritum”.

Another extraordinary feature is “Et unam, sanctam, catholicam”, where the entire choir unexpectedly unites on one note. This effect was carried off with perfect assurance. The two-tenor “Confiteor unam baptisma” is intensely affecting at “in remissionem peccatorum”, the emphasis perhaps placed on the forgiveness rather than the sins.

Unusually, the Sanctus begins softly, almost hauntingly, first in lower voices, and then rising through the ranks: the intimacy is like a Monteverdi madrigal, then taken up with a link passage of alternating fanfares, before the Armonico choir yielded up “pleni sunt coeli” with a remarkably subtle mezzo-piano, superbly balanced and not overstated. Biber produces a series of pirouetting triplets, passed around all the voices, for the Osannas, which built to a glorious forte conclusion.

But if much of this proved daring, fresh, and original, the most unexpected moment of all was the “misereres” of the Agnus Dei. As if suspended in time and space, a prolonged series of chordal shifts, scintillatingly carried off by the massed ensemble, created a magical effect of extraordinary subtlety: one might compare it to the mesmerising feel of, say, Lotti’s eight-part Crucifixus: these two composers were of broadly the same period. The only slight moment of bathos was, briefly, the final Agnus Dei, but the repeated “pacem” dispelled any such reservations, and the ensuing “Plaudite, celebrating the Salzburg Prince Bishopric and its patron, St Rupert, assured a vivid conclusion.

ARMONICO’s Biber concert was not the only successful event at St Mary’s, Warwick, that week. Under the auspices of Leamington Music, the Gesualdo Six produced a recital, part sacred, part secular, that included music from the celebrated secular collection Il Trionfo di Dori by late-Renaissance composers prominent in Rome, Florence, Naples, Vienna, and elsewhere: Giovanni de Macque, Tiburtio Massaino (an Italian priest and prolific sacred music composer), Ruggiero Giovanelli (likewise versatile in both sacred and secular repertoire), Cristoforo Malvezzi, and Orazio Vecchi: a remarkable concoction, sung with exquisite precision and subtle, tender manipulation alongside works by more familiar names such as Anerio, Marenzio, Lassus, and Palestrina.

Notable were the opening Marenzio works, in which the yearning feel and emotive pauses seemed to bring secular close to sacred (“The true light will not come to my eyes”); the rich warmth of Lassus’s “ide homo; the dynamic variety achieved in the Anerio; the exquisite and mysterious start to Monteverdi’s Rimanto in pace; and the paired altos cascading in Palestrina’s Cantabo Domino.

But, appropriately, this group excelled in three sections from the Tenebrae Responsories of Gesualdo himself. Striking key shifts with altos riding high in Tristis est anima mea; extraordinary tenderness where Christ yields up the ghost in Tenebrae Factae sunt; and the staggering originality of O vos omnes.

Miseri habitator by Giovanni de’ Bardi seemed harmonically a bit simplistic; no such problem with Malvezzi’s Lieti solcando, which evoked an almost bizarre, sea-shanty-like thrust, wholly apt for the buoyancy of the text. These were, without exception, performances not just of obvious merit, but of galvanising character, too.

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

100 Best Christian Books

How many have you read?

Visit the 100 Best Christian Books website to see which books made our list, read the judges' notes and add your own comments.

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)