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Music: Biber’s Rosary Sonatas (St John’s, Smith Square)

30 April 2021

Roderic Dunnett is moved by Biber


ST JOHN’s, Smith Square, presents annually a sensitively programmed Holy Week Festival. Nigel Short, founder and conductor of the choir Tenebrae, and the festival’s artistic director, selected an innovation for Easter Day itself, introducing the Rosary (or Mystery) Sonatas by Heinrich Ignaz Biber (1644-1704), one of the most significant forerunners of the Austro-German early Baroque.

These 15 violin sonatas plus a passacaglia — altogether, they run for more than two hours — were composed probably in the 1670s, but rediscovered and published only in 1905. They are wonders of musical originality, as this trio — the Croatian violinist Bojan Čičić (the main soloist), music director Steven Devine (chamber organ), and Peter McCarthy (Baroque violone, or early double bass) — delivered a performance that gripped and, surely, educated the listener at every unpredictable turn.

The work is an extraordinarily poignant instrumental narration, in three sections of five sonatas, representing the mysteries that are the traditional subjects for meditation while praying the rosary: the Joyful Mysteries (the annunciation, birth, and early life), the Sorrowful Mysteries (the Passion), and the Glorious Mysteries (from the resurrection to the Assumption and heavenly beatification or coronation of the Virgin). Number 16, the famous Passacaglia in G minor, is all the more affecting for dispensing with continuo and being totally for solo violin.

Biber, as these Easter Day performances revealed, was an extraordinary innovator. The violin was his own instrument. The term “suite” (French ouverture) had, by the time of Biber’s contemporaries Lully, Purcell, and Buxtehude, come to embrace a series of recognisable forms — minuet, courante, aria, gigue — all later associated with Handel and Bach.

Hence the sonatas often subdivide into four movements, contrasted in speed, manner, and colouring. Within them, Biber introduces vibrant, or sombre, preludes, chaconnes (i.e. ground bass), languid sarabandes, the flowing, usually legato allemande, skipping dances (usually gavottes), and airs (or arias), for especially grief-stricken or emotional moments.

Every one of these passages betrays Biber’s staggering freshness and daring: for 1672, this music was as cutting-edge, it could be argued, as anything in the 20th century. Most famous is the scordatura, which means occasionally introducing discordant sounds and outrageously unfamiliar harmonies, or unusual melodic leaps: compare Mahler tuning his solo violin a semitone awry in his Fourth Symphony.

Biber is always up to something, reconnoitring new territory, steering where you don’t expect; allotting the soloist gritty cadenzas; revealing a deliciously cocky mastery of variation form; constantly probing, stylistically innovating. In the loving 11th movement (The Resurrection) there surfaces what sounds like a Lutheran hymn, the pattern much like “Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem” — a wan glance back?

The Salzburg-based composer uses double stopping equally to dazzling or searing effect, even in a low register, where, with violone in support, it feels like quadruple stopping. The violin embarks on astonishing flights of fancy: long-leaved melodies that soar away, while Steven Devine, vivaciously maintaining tempi, showing great empathy, ensures that it never dominates.

At the Scourging (no. 7), a ground bass positively skips. The — you would assume — mournful Crown of Thorns yields to a bizarre celebratory dance, rich in bumptious counterpoint. The Resurrection music incorporates an almost pastiche section “Aria Tubicinum” (trumpeting):Čičić’s playing just here is as audacious as the music. Where Biber’s music mourns, it is never mawkish; there is often a well-spring of joy underlying it.

I must admit to a penchant for the Russian-Dutch Igor Ruhadze’s gutsy, almost aggressive, and certainly more insistent reading — with harpsichord, not organ — to be found on YouTube. His declaratory approach comes closer to, say, the Latvian Gidon Kremer’s exciting readings of Bach; but some contrasts are, to a degree, lost to dynamic. Though maybe right for the era, it all gets a little samey.

That is what Čičić, in his more tender reading, avoided marvellously. Not a single movement wearied in this deeply involving online performance from an empty but sensitively lit St John’s. We could sense the three players’ sympathy with the underlying Gospel texts. So much freshness and innovation, such daring, and such interpreters: what a heaven-sent musical experience!

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