Virtuosity and Profundity from Rachel Podger in Biber

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Biber, Froberger, Weckmann Rachel Podger (violin), Marcin Świątkiewicz (harpsichord, organ), David Miller (theorbo). Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, 03.07.2014 (GPu)

Biber: Sonata No.I, The Annunciation; Sonata No.III, The Nativity; Sonata No.IV, the Presentation in the Temple
Froberger: Suite XIV in G minor
Biber: Sonata No.X, The Crucifixion; Sonata No.XI, The Resurrection; Sonata No.XIV, The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin
Weckmann: Toccata in D minor
Biber: Sonata No.XV, The Coronation of the Blessed Virgin; Passacaglia, ‘The Guardian Angel’


The work by Biber usually referred to as ‘The Mystery Sonatas’, or sometimes as ‘The Rosary Sonatas’ (the title-page of the unique manuscript, now in the Bavarian State Library in Munich, is missing) is steeped in musical – and extra-musical – conventions and traditions of thought and feeling which are now alien to most of those likely to hear the work played. Given its profoundly religious purpose and nature it also presents the kinds of difficulties common to the performance of essentially religious works in the modern concert hall. In the case of these notoriously difficult sonatas we are all too likely to find our attention focused on the performer rather than the music, on virtuosity rather than meaning. ‘Religious art’ might, after all, be thought of as an inherently oxymoronic phrase. Writing of seventeenth century religious poetry, Helen Gardner put it neatly:

“In all poetry which attempts to represent the intercourse between an individual and its Maker there is a conflict between the ostensible emotion – adoring love, absorbed in the contemplation of its object, or penitence, overwhelmed by the sense of personal unworthiness – and the artist’s actual absorption in the creation of his poem and his satisfaction in achieving perfect expression.”

Where religious music is concerned such a conflict can exist, in slightly different fashions, in composer, performer and listener.

Much about the traditions out of which Biber’s music was written, and knowledge of which will help us to understand its nature, is suggested by his name, or rather his ‘names’. He was baptised simply Heinrich, but later chose to adopt two additional names: ‘Ignaz and ‘Franz’. The two added names are full of significance, being versions of the names of the two most famous figures amongst the founders of the Jesuit Order: Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier. We know that during the 1660s Biber’s friends included a number of students at the Jesuit College at Opavia, in Moravia. It has been speculated that Biber himself might have been a student there too, but there appears to be no definite proof of this claim. Whether he was or not is, in a sense, immaterial, since it is quite clear that he was, perhaps both directly and indirectly, profoundly influenced by Jesuit teachings. Of particular importance where these sonatas are concerned is the Spiritual Exercises, a devotional treatise by Ignatius Loyola which exerted a major and widespread influence on devotional practice and religious art in the Seventeenth Century in many parts of Europe. The Spiritual Exercises, along with other devotional texts derived from Loyola’s work, prescribed periods of ‘mental prayer’ or meditation on, amongst other things, particular episodes/events in the Christian story. The meditator was advised to visualise each specific episode in terms of place, setting and character, beginning with what St. Ignatius called ‘the composition of place, seeing the spot’. The Ignatian meditation often involved a high degree of imaginative dramatisation in the mind of the meditator. Sometimes such meditations were ‘helped’ or ‘stimulated’ by hearing  readings of relevant texts or by the study of visual images, perhaps paintings or miniatures or sets of engravings which were widely circulated in the period. And why not add, where possible, appropriate music as a further ‘help’?

There is some evidence to suggest that procedures such as these ‘explain’ the nature and purpose of Biber’s music. From about 1670 until his death in 1704, Biber was employed in Salzburg. The manuscript of the Mystery Sonatas carries a dedication to the Archbishop of Salzburg, Maximilian Gandulph von Khuenberg. In that manuscript each sonata, as well as the closing passacaglia, is prefaced by an engraved image (pasted in) representing the relevant ‘mystery’. It has been suggested that these images were ‘borrowed’ from one of the many Rosary Psalters published in the second half of the century. During Biber’s years in Salzburg there existed, as in many other cities and towns, a Rosary Confraternity, a group of individuals who met to undertake Ignatian meditations under appropriate guidance. We have no evidence that Biber was a member of this Confraternity (though he certainly did belong to at least one other religious confraternity in the city), but the dedicatee of the sonatas, the Archbishop definitely was a member, so it seems very reasonable to associate Biber’s music with the activities of the Rosary Confraternity in Salzburg. The Confraternity is believed to have met in what is now the Aula Academica of Salzburg University, built in 1617-19 and adorned with large paintings of the fifteen Mysteries on its walls, some by Zacharias Miller and Abraham Bloemaert. We might plausibly imagine the members of the Confraternity moving from painting to painting, meditating before it, perhaps with Biber’s sonatas being played (he was himself a famously virtuosic violinist), paintings and music alike there to help those meditating.

Such a scenario (if its correct) reminds us how very different the experience of the modern listener is, hearing Biber’s sonatas on his or her CD player or in the concert hall. A modern concert hall – even one as attractive as the Dora Stoutzker Hall in Cardiff, with its beautiful wooden walls – is obviously very different from a baroque hall lined with religious paintings. Authenticity in performance practice and instrumentation, important and desirable as they are, necessarily leaves out much that the music’s original ‘audience’ (and, of course, the word is inappropriate) brought to, and received from, it.

Even leaving aside all such genuine issues, another problem arises. If the music was, indeed, used in the ways outlined above, then the members of the Confraternity would have experienced each sonata as, to a great degree, a self-contained whole, heard (and interiorised) while in front of the relevant image, before moving on to the next painting and the next sonata. A consecutive, ‘uninterrupted’, performance of the Mystery Sonatas takes over two hours and demands considerable concentration and stamina from the musicians (especially the violinist) and audience alike. The problems of a live performance of the complete sixteen-part work are compounded when one bears in mind the fact that only two of the pieces, the opening sonata and the closing passacaglia, are played with the violin tuned in the standard manner; all the others use the technique of scordatura, with the tuning amended in various ways, to produce a number of very different sonorities. In the imagined / assumed scenario of a performance in Salzburg in the 1670s there would be time for the violinist to alter the tuning of his/her instrument between pieces. In a consecutive, concert hall performance, such repeated retuning would be both time-consuming and distracting. In her engaging and informative commentary to the audience, Rachel Podger remembered having witnessed such a performance by Andrew Manze in which, she said, “the constant retuning seemed to take as long as the actual music did”. Her solution was to have a number of violins, already tuned in the required way, line up on a table on stage, so that she could pick up the appropriate one for each piece.

It would, I imagine, be fascinating and rewarding to hear (and see) a performance of the Mystery Sonatas in the Aula Academica in Salzburg or, at any rate, with appropriate images projected on stage. Even then, most members of a ‘modern’ audience, not practitioners of Ignatian ‘Spiritual Exercises’, would only obliquely sense the full weight and significance of Biber’s musical ‘prayers’.

Rachel Podger, given all these difficulties, chose not to attempt to hold our attention (or to test herself) through a complete reading of the Mystery Sonatas; rather she chose to play seven of the fifteen sonatas, plus the final unaccompanied passacaglia (i.e. roughly half of the whole work). Her choices represented well the emotional and theological range of the whole sequence, including, as they did, sonatas from each of the Five Joyful Mysteries (episodes from the childhood of Christ, from the Annunciation to Christ in the Temple), the Five Sorrowful Mysteries (from the Agony in the Garden to the Crucifixion) and the Five Glorious Mysteries (from the Resurrection to the Coronation of Mary). Biber’s music was interleaved, as it were, with two solo harpsichord works by Johann Jakob Froberger and Mathias Weckmann, both composers being older contemporaries of Biber.

For all the problems and inherent unsatisfactoriness outlined above involved in a performance of the Mystery Sonatas in a concert hall setting, Biber’s music is still well worth hearing in such a context, especially when played as well as it was on this occasion by Rachel Podger, harpsichordist (and organist) Marcin Świątkiewicz and lutenist David Miller – all of them period specialists of distinction. Right from the beginning of the ‘Annunciation’ sonata it was clear that Podger and her continuo musicians had a clear and coherent sense of how the music worked and of its distinctive aesthetic. Podger’s work was dazzling in the rapid scalar passages in the Praeludium of Sonata I which, it has been suggested by some commentators ‘represent’ the rustling of the annunciatory angel’s wings. I wonder if it isn’t wrong to think of Biber’s music working in quite so straightforward a manner of sound-painting? The music, more metaphorically, also suggests the vibrations of invisible energy as the ‘materials’ of the incarnate Christ are transmitted to Mary. That paves the way for the gravid beauty of the adagio its weight of tone in Biber’s excellent writing for violin and theorbo suggesting a kind of full and pregnant set of possibilities, musical, theological and otherwise. The music of the Nativity sonata has, predominantly, a different kind of gravity, expressive of a kind of intimate humanity full of love and devotion, though not without a melancholy dimension, perhaps suggestive of the difficulties and dangers of childbirth, or even of Mary and Joseph’s difficult journey to Bethlehem. The more vivacious music of the presto and courante sections of the Nativity sonata speak of the new life of a child and of the New Life promised in the birth of this particular Child.  In this sonata the sonority made possible by the tuning of the violin’s strings to B3—F#4—B4—D5 predominantly gives the music a kind of inward, rather than extroverted, quality, especially in the closing adagio (particularly well played on this occasion). In Sonata IV (The Presentation in the Temple) a solemn opening is succeeded by music of greater energy, and the unifying thread of repeated melodic figures in the bass was played with impressive, but not over-assertive, vigour. Fittingly, Sonata X, ‘The Crucifixion’, is of particular power and importance in the sequence of the Mystery Sonatas. It echoes material from a number of the earlier sonatas (not all of which we had heard on this particular occasion) as a ‘musical’ way of emphasising the Crucifixion as that which gives full meaning to all the earlier ‘mysteries’ of the life of Christ. Biber’s gift for musical ‘representation’ is heard in a remarkable form here, both in the dotted triplet rhythms early in the movement, employing multiple stopping on the violin (Rachel Podger’s work here was breathtaking), which have been thought, plausibly enough, to be a kind of musical echoing of the act of the nailing of Christ to the cross and also in the cold stillness of the adagio, a sense of a dark world frozen between two times and stirred into the next phase of human existence with the vividly represented ‘earthquake’ in the second of the two variations on the adagio’s theme: “And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent” (Matthew 27:51). The power and significance of this moment is only heightened by what follows in Biber’s sequence, Sonata XI ‘The Resurrection’. The G minor of ‘The Crucifixion’ sonata become G major in ‘The Resurrection’, and the darkness and earthquake which close Sonata X are transformed and transcended in the opening of  Sonata XI, with its musical depiction of dawn (the rising of the son/son), an aural echo of the Biblical accounts of the morning discovery that the body of Christ was no longer in the tomb (see, for example, Luke 24). This is followed by some limpid music based on the plainsong hymn (for Easter) ‘Surrexit Christus hodie’:

Surrexit Christus hodie. Alleluia!
Humano pro solamine. Alleluia!
In hoc Paschali gaudio. Alleluia!
Benedicamus Domino. Alleluia!

Christ is risen today Alleluia!
For the comfort of all people. Alleluia!
Rejoice in this Easter Day. Alleluia!
Let us give thanks to God. Alleluia!

The hymn was introduced on the organ by Marcin Świątkiewicz and the exploration of the theme by violinist and organist was exquisite, some of the loveliest of all the music in this remarkable work. Biber’s writing finds music of great beauty in the idiosyncratic tuning which this sonata demands of the violin, G3—G4—D4—D5 and Podger and company did powerful and moving justice to it. Rachel Podger’s very perceptively chosen selection from the fifteen sonatas in the Mystery Sonatas neared its close with Sonata XIV (The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin). In D major, with the violin tuned A3—E4—A4—D5. This is a remarkable piece, including a huge chaconne made up of no less than thirty four variations and representing in its ascending melodies the taking up of the Blessed Virgin, in body and soul, to heaven. Biber creates a remarkable ‘dramatic’ effect at the close, when the violin stops in the midst of a phrase, leaving the continuo musicians to bring things to a close. As if, perhaps, the Virgin had now passed from human sight, human life continuing in the form of the continuo section. When I hear this music I am reminded of the experience of viewing Correggio’s huge and wonderful fresco of the Assumption of the Virgin in the dome of the Cathedral in Parma, where sustained looking upwards at the ascending vortex of figures eventually triggers an attack of vertigo sufficient to make one close one’s eyes or to look away at the more mundane things surrounding one at ground level.

The last sonata Rachel Podger played on this occasion was No. XV (the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin). Here Biber’s music, in C major, seems to represent (in its four sections marked Sonata – Aria – Canzona – Sarabanda & Double) a kind of heavenly sublimation of the courtly dances of the baroque age, the music and dances of heaven appropriate for the celebration of the Virgin’s Coronation, as it were. It creates a remarkable aural image of heavenly serenity. There is a sense of leisured ease, of a total absence of trouble or worry, throughout this particular sonata, of decorous celebration.

Biber’s concern in these sonatas, although he may sometimes undertake a degree of what one might call ‘programme music’, is essentially with inner moods, or more precisely, meditative states. In an eloquently written piece on the Sonatas (‘Reciting a Rosary, But in sonata Form’) in The New York Times (November 14, 2004), Jeremy Eichler argued for the purely ‘musical’ quality of Biber’s work, suggesting that one “need not follow the biblical narrative to admire this music for its airy, gracious lines, its magisterial counterpoint and its sheer instrumental wizardry” and suggesting that “this is deeply believing music that requires no particular belief”. Although there is certainly truth in what Eichler says, my own experience has been that the attempt to put Biber’s music in its religious context enables a fuller appreciation of its power and its beauty – hence my lengthy introduction to this review. I can’t resist, however, quoting Eichler once more, when writing of Biber’s use of scordatura: “Each new configuration is a secret key to an invisible door, unlocking a different set of chordal possibilities on the instrument, opening up alternative worlds of resonance and vibration. The violin quite literally changes the essential qualities of its own voice”. Rachel Podger’s negotiation of the difficulties of Biber’s use of alternative tunings (where what the player sees in the score doesn’t correspond, as it were, to the sounds produced), and her articulation of the musical (and spiritual) rewards it makes possible was one of the many joys of this outstanding performance. Whether in the power and authority with which Sonatas X and XI were performed or in the other-worldly serenity of Sonata XV, Podger, Świątkiewicz and Miller gave us a moving and revelatory performance. Nor did the unaccompanied Podger disappoint in the Passacaglia which closes Biber’s work – which received a performance so fluid and seemingly spontaneous that it was like listening to a sublime and inspired improvisation. That this music formed part of the soil out of which Bach’s writing for unaccompanied violin grew is inescapably obvious, though such a recognition should not be allowed to make us think of Biber merely as a ‘source’ for a ‘greater’ composer. Biber’s music has an absolute value of its own.

Given the scale and quality of the Mystery Sonatas, and the richly persuasive and rewarding performance they received, it was hard not to think of the harpsichord pieces by Froberger and Weckmann as mere ‘fillers’, and it is hard too, not to create the feeling  that any comment here is by way of an afterthought. But to do either would be unjust and fair – unjust to the two composers and unfair to the young Polish harpsichordist Marcin Świątkiewicz. The extensive influence of Johann Jacob Froberger (1616-67) on his contemporaries was due both to the quality and the innovative nature of his music, in its idiosyncratic fusing of French and Italian idioms into a distinctively German style. The suite played by Świątkiewicz (no XIV in G minor) is in four movements, the second marked courante, the third designated a ‘Sarabande’ and the last a ‘Gigue’. The first movement carries a more unusual marking: ‘Lamentation sur ce que j’ay esté vole, et se joűe fort lentement, à la discretion sans observeur aulcune mesure’. Froberger was famous for his ‘serious’ lamentations for keyboard, including pieces written in honour of Ferdinand II and III. There is, perhaps, a degree of irony in his ‘lamentation’ for his experience of being robbed, but the resulting music, in its free tempos, is sophisticated and intriguing, its mild melancholy balanced by a quirky inventiveness. Świątkiewicz’s reading of the movement was well-judged in tempos and forcefully (but not excessively, given its ‘subject’) expressive. The Courante might, perhaps, have been, if only by way of contrast, a little more rhythmically consistent and insistent, but the Sarabande was a delight, full both of feeling and grace and the closing Gigue was properly energetic, to the extent of seeming rather hard-driven at times. Mathias Weckmann (1619-74) was a less widely influential figure than Froberger (the two were friends), but as a composer based in northern Germany he ahs been described by Julie Anne Sadie as a “composer whose music represents an important link between that of Schűtz and Bach”. The Toccata in D minor played by Świątkiewicz was fierce in its technical demands (demands generally well met by Świątkiewicz) full of fluctuations of tempo and dynamics, and of contrasting textures and registers, more Italianate than French, though not as merely ‘flashy’ as many a toccata of its period. I don’t know this piece at all well, but it sounded as though there were one or two slight misfingerings, although these did not seriously detract from Świątkiewicz’s energetic and lucid performance.

For aficionados of the Baroque this was a remarkable and memorable concert. Any listener not hitherto attuned to the music of the Baroque must surely have left with a new awareness of the idiom’s depth and variety.

Glyn Pursglove

Leave a Comment