On a Frigid Night, Obscure Biber Transfixes an Akron Audience

United StatesUnited States Biber: Adriane Post, Karina Schmitz, Johanna Novom, Carrie Krause (violins), Apollo’s Fire, First United Methodist Church, Akron, Ohio, 31.1.2019. (MSJ)

Biber – Selections from Sonatas on the Mysteries of the Rosary

The chance to hear a (mostly) all-Heinrich Biber (1644-1704) concert is rare, so kudos to Apollo’s Fire for presenting about half of the so-called Rosary Sonatas by an imposing master from the generation before Bach. ‘So-called’ because the collection only survived in one copy, and that copy is missing its cover page, so we don’t actually know exactly what Biber called these works. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even sonatas in the formal sense. But engravings preceding each work – plus Biber’s dedication to his employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg – show that they take their inspiration from the Catholic Rosary. And what inspiration it is.

Biber not only dedicated himself to writing church music, but as pre-concert speaker (and concert performer) Jeffrey Grossman explained, Biber even wrote sacred works when there was no commission. Though he wrote some well-remembered secular works, including his outrageous Battalia, Biber’s central core was sacred music. The Rosary Sonatas also show off the fact the Biber was a pre-eminent violin virtuoso.

Most of the sonatas are written in scordatura tuning, which means that the violin’s strings are tuned to pitches other than the standard G-D-A-E (from low to high). The score is written out, however, on a normal staff in order to tell violinists where to place their fingers. Instead of the pitches seen in the score, the pitches altered by the scordatura tuning are heard. This conceptual difficulty, plus the difficult logistics of tuning and retuning, make extended concerts of these pieces extremely rare. Apollo’s Fire solved the difficulty by having four solo violinists bring two violins each so they could each play two sonatas, accompanied by an extensive basso continuo group. The result was astonishing intensity.

Adriane Post began with the Sonata No.1 in D minor, known as ‘The Annunciation’ because of its accompanying illustration of an angel telling Mary that she will be giving birth to Jesus. In some ways the most conventional of the lot, due to its use of standard tuning, it is nonetheless marked by Biber’s characteristically vivid imagination. As Apollo’s Fire music director Jeannette Sorrell pointed out in her program notes, the opening passagework of the prelude could be taken as the fluttering of angelic wings.

After some initial bow-skipping as her instrument adjusted to the room, Post explored the alternately fiery and tender music thoroughly, achieving a trance-like hush in the final section. She was supported richly by Jeffrey Grossman on the organ, René Schiffer on the cello, Brian Kay on the lute, and William Simms on the theorbo. The four offered expressive continuo throughout the evening as Grossman changed between organ and harpsichord, while Kay and Simms used various lutes and theorbos – even a baroque guitar at one point.

Karina Schmitz played the Sonata No.4 in D minor, ‘The Presentation of Jesus’, in a resonant tuning that allowed for the ringing of the open strings in many places. A single-movement chaconne, the piece starts quietly but builds in tension and virtuosity, including a passage with notes alternating around a repeated ‘A’ that makes one think of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, and wonder how much Biber’s sophisticated flights of fancy influenced the younger composer. As if to underline the point, Brian Kay provided a plaintive interlude between the Biber pieces with Bach’s C minor Prelude for lute.

For Sonata No.6 in C minor, ‘The Agony in the Garden,’ Johanna Novom used the scordatura tuning of A-flat/E-flat/G/D for a dark, closed-in sound. Carrie Krause started off the Sonata No.7 in F, ‘The Scourging at the Pillar’, deceptively brightly in the warmly resonant tuning of C-F-A-C. But as the piece developed, Krause used lots of bow to capture the fire and violence of Biber’s strangely inventive writing. At one breathtaking moment, Krause switched back and forth between the same pitch on two different strings, giving an uncanny shift of tone color.

Post returned to play the dense and intense Sonata No.10 in G minor, ‘The Crucifixion’, which uses normal tuning, except for the high string being dropped one step down to D. Post tore into the fierce repeated notes with strong dramatic support from the continuo. Schiffer closed the first half with the Sarabande from Bach’s Fifth Cello Suite. It was breathtaking, despite a persistent rattling sound.

During intermission, some patrons stepped outside into the frigid cold, sending a wave of cool air through the church which forced the musicians to do some intensive re-tuning before the second half. Harmony achieved, Grossman stepped to the harpsichord to play the Toccata No.8 in G by Johann Kerll (1627-1693), an ornate and cascading piece that showed how German composers adopted Frescobaldi’s keyboard brilliance and passed it on to successors as Bach.

Sonata No.14 in G, ‘The Resurrection,’ uses a G-G-D-D tuning to create an unusually luminous sound, and soloist Johanna Novom played breathtakingly pure octaves with a wide-open, glorious resonance. Krause returned in the joyous Sonata No.12 in C, which opens with radiant, trumpet-like fanfares. After a Kellner lute interlude from William Simms, Schmitz returned for the Sonata No.14 in D, ‘The Assumption of Our Lady.’ Schmitz played sonorously in the first parts and relished the celebratory dancing and stamping of the later ones. At one point, she used left-handed pizzicato, before her violin suddenly rocketed up into the high register and disappeared like Mary into Heaven, while the continuo finished alone.

The concert closed with an arrangement of the motet ‘Dulcis amor Jesu’ by Kaspar Förster (1616-1673), originally for two sopranos, two violins, and continuo. Here, the two sopranos were replaced by two more violins, giving the audience a chance to hear all four soloists together as a sort of built-in encore. Though pleasant, the motet is not on Biber’s level, and goes on rather longer than it needs to. Regardless, this was a glorious chance to revel in a rarely-heard master composer’s imagination.

I hope the rest of the Rosary Sonatas appear on a future program. Judging by overheard comments as the audience exited the building, they would be welcome. There’s something right in the world when a large number of people turn out on an arctic night in Akron, Ohio, to hear obscure Baroque violin sonatas and walk out saying, ‘I’m so glad I came!’.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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