BIBER: Mystery Sonatas (15)*; Passacaglia for Solo Violin 
Marianne Rônez, baroque violin; *Affetti Musicali (Arno Jochem, viola da gamba, baroque cello; Michael Freimuth, theorbo; Ernst Kubitschek, chamber organ) 

Winter & Winter 910 029-2 (2 CDs). TT: 126:23
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Here's a treat for Baroque chamber music lovers: fifteen sonate da chiesa (church sonatas) by Biber, inspired by the fifteen sacred Mysteries of the Catholic Church, which center on the birth, life, and death of Christ, and are commemorated in each recitation of the Rosary. Biber dedicated the sonatas to his employer, the Austrian Prince-Archbishop Maximilian Gandolph, and the various movements do exemplify a variety of typical movement constructions; but they do not seem intended primarily as a display of his compositional prowess (as some feel Monteverdi intended the 1610 Vespers, for example).

The pieces are cast in simple trio-sonata textures, making for a clear musical line, though inevitably throwing the listener's attention to the solo violin in the treble. The opening flourish of Sonata 1 ("The Annunciation") strongly recalls Vivaldi's concerti, and to consider these pieces as chamber-scaled violin concerti would not be far wrong, although the solo part, as befits the music's religious subject, is designed primarily for expression rather than display.

The function of the sonata da chiesa was to provide a suitable background for prayer and meditation; despite the specific references here to the Sacred Mysteries, the aim of these pieces is not primarily pictorial in the nineteenth-century fashion. In some cases, the music aptly suits its chosen subject: "The Agony in the Garden" has a spacious minor-key breadth, while stabbing violin double-stops aptly paint "The Crucifixion" (though Biber fails to carry the idea through). Elsewhere, the meditative minor of "The Nativity" and the understated sense of awakening for "The Resurrection" throw an interesting slant on their respective subjects. Conversely, "The Ascension,"which would seem to be a natural for tone-painting, remains simply meditative; the final passacaglia of "The Assumption" evolves from introspective beginnings into a sprightly jig; and "The Scourging"is incongruously jaunty.

Violinist Marianne Rônez makes her strongest effect when she leans into the phrases with some energy; otherwise, as happens with authentic-instrument practitioners, her tone can be a bit etiolated. It is hard to tell whether the tang and bite of her timbre is due primarily to the instrument she is using, or to Biber's varied use of scordatura, retuning one or more strings from the standard G-D-A-E. Her colleagues provide firm support, with the organ registered in clear, round tones.

Despite Winter & Winter's fancy packaging—a solid cardboard box with slots for the CDs, and a booklet attached inside—the notes are minimal, with a great deal of white space alternating with abstract drawings. One would have liked some explanation, say, as to why Biber used a variety of scordatura, selectively retuning different strings in the different sonatas (rather than the entire instrument, or the same strings throughout). The sound is excellent.

S.F.V. (Oct. 2000)