It seems as if it was only weeks ago when I had discovered Andrew Manze's earlier recording of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber's "1681" Violin Sonatas, also on Harmonia Mundi (but rereleased on its "1 + 1" budget label). Actually, it was a full five months ago. And all I could manage to say, as a brief description in that earlier review, was "Wow! That's it. Just 'Wow!'." Moreover, I tried to rationalize reviewing that earlier release by stating that I would have loved to have run across Manze's take on the Rosary Sonatas, if only they had been available.
Well, it seems as if Providence has chosen to be good to me. Not long after reviewing the "1681" sonatas, prerelease information on Manze's Rosary Sonatas showed up here, and I ordered it on the spot. And then bit my nails for some weeks, awaiting, first, the release date, and, then, actually having the CDs in my hands.
Now I've got it. All's well that ends well. And, believe me, the wait was worth it; this is truly a remarkable performance of some amazing music, and it fully exceeds the anticipation that had built up in the months between reviewing that earlier Biber recording by Manze and receiving and listening to this one.
The Rosary Sonatas endeavor to capture, in music, the experience of the three great Mysteries of Christ: The Birth, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection, in three settings of five "Mystery Sonatas" each (hence the fact that the Rosary Sonatas are also called the Mystery Sonatas). Despite the obvious tie-in with the narrative, this is hardly "program" music as we've come to understand it since the 19th century Romantic age; rather, it is a series of evocations expressing the range of emotional reactions to the sequence of events. And, while the instrumental combination of Baroque violin and (discreet) continuo provided alternately by organ and harpsichord hardly seems up to even that restricted challenge, one must make allowance for the fact that this is the work of Heinrich von Biber, perhaps the greatest violinist of all time. (Yes, now that I've heard both that earlier Biber album and this one as well, I am starting to become comfortable in placing him ahead of even Paganini!)
Biber was not merely a master of all "conventional" violinistic techniques (including simultaneous legato [bowing] and pizzicato, and multiple stops of incredible complexity); he recognized (and largely, if not solely, developed) the full coloristic possibilities of the instrument that could be obtained through the use of scordatura (the intentional mistuning of one or more strings). Each of the fifteen sonatas uses a different scordatura tuning, with no two of them duplicated, and it is this practice that is in large part responsible for the range of expressive (or, if you like, emotional) effects achieved over the course of the three Mysteries: the simple beauty of the Birth Mystery, the sorrowful mourning of the Crucifixion Mystery, and the glorious joy of the Resurrection Mystery. In the hands of Andrew Manze, all this is achieved with a single violin (but a gorgeous 1700 Amati instrument at that), with simple but effective continuo provided on organ and harpsichord by Richard Egarr.
Manze is simply incredible in this remarkable work, eliciting a range of timbres and effects from his instrument that defy ordinary logic. In each sonata, the instrument in his hands creates a different - and totally appropriate - effect. At times, it is even difficult to envision that one is listening to a violin, so perfectly does Manze realize Biber's intentions (realized largely due to scordatura) of breaking the bonds to which "ordinary" violin playing is bound. If Biber was the greatest violinist of his (or any) time, Manze must surely be the best current-day practitioner and realizer of Biber's intentions.
Two final thoughts, one on-topic and one somewhat off-topic: First, we do not lack for modern recordings of these sonatas. But I believe that Manze is truest to Biber's intention of making these sonatas the "personal" pieces that they are, by limiting the continuo to a single keyboard accompanist. I think this approach is vastly better than the more common approach of using a larger continuo group, thereby diluting the desired effect.
Second, Biber's music is so far-ranging in its achievement of violinistic possibilities that one should not be overly surprised to hear precursors of styles yet to come, years, decades and even centuries in the future. I was mildly surprised, in listening to both the melody and the double-stops that Manze plays in the initial sonata of "The Visitation" (track 4 on CD 1), that this particular track brought to mind Mark O'Connor's "Appalachia" style. Then, after giving it a second thought (and a second and third listen), I said, "Well, why not?" Why not indeed!
The two CDs, amounting to two hours and 20 minutes of music, are nicely filled and rounded out by inclusion of Biber's Passacaglia for Solo Violin and a brief final track in which Manze gives a few demonstrations of the effects possible with scordatura. The nicely descriptive booklet notes also go into depth on the scordatura matter, including the initial difficulties that musicians had in understanding and playing the works when the only-surviving manuscript was first discovered. It seems that the manuscript was complete, save for a missing title page that held the key to all of the scordatura tunings. Since the music is notated in tablature (more or less conventionally by notes that indicate finger positions), these finger positions only make sense - and the proper sounds - when the strings are correctly tuned. I suppose one could call the decoding of this manuscript an early example of "reverse engineering."
I have already bestowed my personal "best classical CD of 2004" award on this release. With, still, some 10 weeks to go before the year is out, the odds of this recording being knocked out of first place are truly miniscule.