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ARS Antiqua Austria, Gunnar Letzbor: Biber: Sonaten Uber Die Mysterien des Rosenkranzes

C. Michael Bailey By

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It is a funny thing. There are just some pieces of music that scream to be owned in multiple performances. This past Christmas, I bought my 52nd and 53rd performances of Handel's Messiah. I am not sure if one can own to many performances of Bach's Goldberg Variations or Christmas Oratorio or Mass in B Minor. There is no possible way that one can have too many Beethoven Symphony Cycles. Another of these special sets of music is Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber's Sonaten Uber Mysterien Des Rosenkranzes, or "The Rosary Sonatas."

Biber (1644—1704) was a devilishly clever fiddle player from a period that boasted several, including Giuseppe Tartini (1692—1770), Arcangelo Corelli (1653—1713), Francesco Maria Veracini (1690—1768), Francesco Geminiani (1687—1762), and Pietro Locatelli (1695—1762). The period was rich with violinists and composers for the violin. Biber wrote a prolific amount of instrumental music and is most known for his violin sonatas, while also composing a good bit of sacred music. In his "Rosary Sonatas" he combined the two.

The only original manuscript was discovered and is stored in the Bavarian State Library in Munich. When discovered, there was no title page, and the manuscript begins with the dedication. Because of the missing title page, it is uncertain what the title of the collection of violin pieces was to be. It is thought that the pieces were composed around 1676, but it was not until 1905 that they were published.

Technically, the "Rosary Sonatas" are a collection of 16 short sonatas for violin and continuo, with a final passacaglia for solo violin. Each piece has a title related to the Roman Catholic Rosary Marian devotion.

A Brief Interlude on the Rosary

In Roman Catholic tradition, The Rosary is a beaded prayer instrument made up of five sets of ten prayers (a decade), each of the five sets corresponding to one of three overall cycles of "mysteries:" five Joyful Mysteries, five Sorrowful Mysteries and five Glorious Mysteries (since the 13th Century, Pope John Paul II added his "Luminous Mysteries").

The 15 Mysteries of the Rosary, as performed in the "Rosary processions" since the 13th century, are meditations on important moments in the life of Christ and the Blessed Virgin. During these processions, participants walked around a cycle of fifteen paintings and sculptures that were placed at specific points of a church depicting the Passion (also known as Stations of the Cross).

It is from these 15 Mysteries that Biber structured his sonata cycle. There have been several exceptional recordings of the Rosary Sonatas including Reinhard Goebel and Musica Antiqua Köln (Archiv, 1991), John Holloway and Tragicomedia (Virgin Veritas, 2002), Andrew Manse and Richard Egarr (Harmonia Mundi, 2004) and Julia Wedman (Sono Luminus, 2011). Our present consideration is a current re-release of a 1997 performance by the period instrument/period performance group ARS Antiqua Austria, under the direction of Gunnar Letzbor.

The relatively rare appearance of this cycle in the recorded literature makes all that is there valuable. The ARS Antiqua Austria is a precisely-tuned ensemble, led by violinist Gunnar Letzbor who perform a stately and sacred cycle recorded, appropriately at the Parish Church of the Assumption in Hallstatt. If location is everything, it is the most outstanding thing in this recording. Further commentary remains unnecessary. This music recalls the opening salvo of John Keats' "The Eve of St. Agnes:"

"ST. AGNES' Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was! The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold; The hare limp'd trembling through the frozen grass, And silent was the flock in woolly fold: Numb were the Beadsman's fingers, while he told His rosary, and while his frosted breath, Like pious incense from a censer old..."

Track Listing: CD1: Sonatas I - IX. CD2: Sonatas X - XVI

Personnel: Lorenz Duftschmid: bass viol; Wolfgang Zerer: organ; Wolfgang Gluxam: harpsichord; Axel Wolf: lute, archilute; Michael Oman: viola da gamba; Uli Fussenegger: double bass; Gunar Zetzbor: violin.

Title: Biber: Sonaten Uber Die Mysterien des Rosenkranzes | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Arcana - Outhere Music


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