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Julia Wedman: Biber - Mystery Sonatas

C. Michael Bailey By

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Before Perlman, Mutter and Mullova were Grumiaux, Heifetz and Stern. Preceding them were Berwald, Spohr and Paganini, and prior to them were Benda, Cannabich and Stamitz. Predating those composers were Vivaldi, Corelli and Bach. And, finally, before all of them was Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704). Biber was the foremost violinist and composer for the violin of the early Baroque period. Of his many violin sonatas, the sixteen so- called "Mystery" or "Rosary" sonatas exist as the pinnacle of his written output. Unpublished at his death, these sonatas remain the most popular of all of Biber's considerable output.

The popularity of these pieces is supported by their recording history in the past 25 years. Notable recordings of the "Mystery Sonatas" include those by Goebel, Musica Antiqua, Koln (Archiv, 1991), Lautenbacher, et al. (Vox Box, 1996), Davitt Moroney and Tragicomedy (Veritas, 2002) and Andrew Manse (Harmonia Mundi, 2004). This set is by Canadian Baroque specialist Julia Wedman, and what a youthful tour de force it is.

Wedman is a member of several notable Canadian ensembles, including Tafelmusick, The Knights, the Ebyler String Quartet and I Furiosi. She has had an exponential rise in attention and popularity, over the past number of years, because of her association with these groups and this new solo outing can do nothing but bolster her already rapid ascent.

Biber conceived these sonatas as meditations on the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious mysteries of the Roman Catholic Rosary. A deeply spiritual man, Biber imbued these compositions with the requirement of a high level of musical accomplishment to match their spiritual exigence. Biber accomplished this with his deliberate and thoughtful composing. Only the first and last sonatas are composed for the violin in standard tuning (G-D-A-E). The remaining 14 sonatas employ various degrees of scordatura (or cross-tuning, not unlike what is done with slide guitar). This tuning technique allows for otherwise impossible note sequences to be played. The effect is one of sharpening, and giving greater definition to the performed pieces.

Wedman, joined by I Furiosi cellist Felix Deak, Tafelmusic keyboardist Charlotte Nediger, harpist Julia Seager Scott and theorboist Lucas Harris, produces an amazingly warm and modern performance of the pieces, one universally well-defined with a prism's precision. Wedman's navigation of Biber's tricky double-stops lend the necessary drama to these Baroque prayers. Nediger's harpsichord is crisp, without being harsh like earlier period instrument recordings. Her organ sound is ancient and stately on Sonata No. 5 "Finding the 12-year Old Jesus in the Temple," and Sonata No. 15 "The Coronation of Mary in Heaven."

The continuo is provided by cellist Deak who rises to the challenge, alternating between Baroque cello and viola da gamba. It is the continuo that provides the unifying drone in small ensemble Baroque playing, serving to flesh out the silent parts and give gravity to the more complex sections. The sum of effects is one of throwing open the windows and airing these pieces out, effectively instilling a compelling vibrancy and character fit for such spiritual considerations.

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