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Heinrich Biber (1644-1704) was a Bohemian fiddler with a serious Marian fixation (or at least his supporters had such a fixation). He is best known for a series of 16 violin sonatas, Mysterien Sonaten, Die Rosenkranz-Sonaten (Mystery Sonatas, Rosary Sonatas), dedicated to the Catholic Archbishop of Salzburg, that he composed between 1670 and 1676. Bibera show-off predating meister-show-off Nicolo Paganinioriginally composed these sonatas so devilishly that only he could perform them. Not so his sacred choral music. His Marian Vespers, while complex, are plainly sublime but rarely heard in favor of Claudio Monteverdi's earlier Vespro della Beata Vergine 1610 (Vespers for the Blessed Virgin, 1610; SV 206 and 206a). Biber's Vespers are uniquely fine, representing a pinnacle in Baroque choral composition.
The typical Vespers (Evening Prayer, Canonical Hours) include musical setting for selected Psalms, preceded by an Antiphon or a brief Gregorian chant. Psalm 109 (Latin Vulgate), "Dixit Dominus" ("The Lord Said") was a popular text for Vespers. Biber opened his Marian Vespers with the sweet Antiphon "Dom Esset Rex in accubito suo" followed by a forward thinking "Dixit Dominus." More Monteverdi than Bach, Biber's setting for soprano, alto, tenor and bass soloists possesses a majesty fit for the Mother of God: "The dew of thy birth is of the womb of the morning."
Originally released in 1986, The Salzburg Baroque Ensemble, under the baton of Howard Arman, produced a splendidly refined performance of these Vespers. Soprano Kym Amps and tenor Anton Rosner particularly stand out, with great warmth and comfort in their respective sonic ranges. Off the beaten path, Biber's Marienvesper is a grand and welcome surprise for this holiday season. It is worth thinking outside the Messiah classic box when looking for new music with which to celebrate the holidays.
Personnel: Salzburger Bachchoir / Salzburger Barockensemble; Howard Arman, conductor.