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Biber: Mensa Sonora
Cedille Records CDR 90000 116
Chicago’s “stylish and exciting period-instrument group” (Chicago Tribune
), Baroque Band presents works by Bohemian-Austrian composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. One of the most important composers for the violin in the history of the instrument (the prominent 18th century music historian Charles Burney
called Biber the best violin composer of the 17th century), Biber’s Mensa Sonora
(meaning ‘Harmonious Table’) was music composed for aristocratic dining, though it is anything but superficial background music. The disc closes with the 10-part Battalia for strings, which uses several unique devices for the time: hitting the strings with the wood of the bow, placing paper under the strings of the basses to imitate a snare drum, snap pizzicatos, and folk songs rendered simultaneously in several different keys to portray drunken soldiers.
Early music specialist Garry Clarke, hailed by the Oxford Times as “one of the finest exponents of baroque music in the [UK],” leads Baroque Band through the feats of virtuosity necessary to execute these exciting pieces. His Baroque pedigree (Academy of Ancient Music, The Sixteen, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, The King’s Consort, The Hanover Band, and the Scholars; plus work with Christopher Hogwood, John Elliot Gardener, and William Christie) led him to found and develop an ensemble with “an abundance of style, a crisp esprit de corps, and a palpable affection for its repertoire.” (Chicago Tribune)
The German composer Paul Hindemith (1895–1963) described Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber as “the most important Baroque composer before Bach,” and Biber certainly was one of the most innovative and influential composers of the second half of the seventeenth century.
Born in Wartenburg, north Bohemia, in 1644, the son of a gamekeeper or forester, Biber was to ascend through the ranks of the aristocracy of Salzburg to become Kapellmeister to the archiepiscopal court in 1684 and collect a knighthood from Emperor Leopold in 1690, before his death at age 60 in 1704.
Little is known about Biber’s early musical training except that by the mid 1660’s he was already a master on both violin and viola da gamba. Some scholars believe he was likely trained by the Jesuit musicians at the Gymnasium at Opava in Silesia. The theory behind this speculation comes from Biber’s two middle names, neither of which appear on his birth certificate and which he didn’t start using until about 1676; they are taken from two of the most important founding members of the Jesuit order: Ignatius of Loyola and Franz Xavier. This was an important period in the formation of Biber’s musical style, and much of the innovation of his later compositions, including the use of folk music, programmatic elements, virtuosity, and scordatura (alternative tuning of the violin strings) comes from these early influences.
In 1670, Biber moved to Salzburg, entering the service, as a court music-ian, of Prince-Archbishop Maximillian Gandolph von Khüenburg. Two years later, in 1672, he married Maria Weiss, the daughter of a wealthy Salzburg merchant. In 1679, Biber was appointed deputy Kapellmeister for the Archbishop.
Both works on this disc date from Biber’s time in Salzburg: Battalia from 1673 and Mensa Sonora, published in 1680 and dedicated to the Archbishop of Salzburg (as was much of Biber’s work after 1670).
Mensa Sonora, or “sounding table,” a set of six instrumental suites or “Pars,” subtitled “instrumental table-music with fresh-sounding violin sonorities,” was music for dining — i.e., background music. But it is much more than that. The music may be less technically innovative than much of his violin music and certainly less virtuosic, but Biber employs a range of unexpected melody, harmony, and rhythm, much of which must have been lost for those original diners above the clattering of their knives and forks. Typical of late seventeenth century suites, the Mensa Sonora include many of the dance movements usual in a French suite: allemande, courante, sarabande, gavotte, and gigue. To these Biber adds dances such as gagliarda, balletto, trezza, canario, amener, and ciacona. Pars I, IV, and VI all begin with a sonata and conclude with a sonatina. In Pars I, Biber uses the seven bars of the opening sonata as the conclusion, while in Pars VI the concluding sonatina opens with a motive similar to the opening sonata but then Biber adds an eight-bar presto which leaves us hanging in the air — or mid-mouthful, so to speak.
On most, if not all, currently-available recordings, the Mensa Sonora are performed one to a part. While this is a justifiable solution, I have elected to use a larger ensemble. I have done this for several reasons. First, I believe the relative simplicity of the individual parts indicates that Biber was anticipating more than one player per part. Indeed, Biber himself suggests that Mensa Sonora contains no “eccentric dishes,” a reference to both the sumptuous meal the diners might have been eating and to the relative lack of technical virtuosity or special effects such as scordatura needed to execute the individual parts. If, as I suspect, the intention had been to use a large ensemble, this would have made ensemble playing more straightforward, especially for music that, due to its “background” purpose, may not have received prior rehearsal. Second, we know that many court banquets were extravagant affairs. While it is possible that the music-loving Archbishop had Mensa Sonora played for his private dining, it is at least as likely that it was used for larger gatherings. In this case, larger instrumental forces might have been employed to facilitate the Archbishop hearing at least some of the music over the din of the meal. Third, the Archbishop had a large body of musicians on his payroll — for the visit of the future Emperor Joseph I in 1697, over 100 musicians performed in a costumed entertainment — surely they didn’t all get the night off? And finally, the added depth of sonority produced by a larger-than-one-on-a-part ensemble gives extra weight to the music, reflecting the rich nature of the food being consumed while still allowing crispness and lightness of punctuation and articulation.
In Battalia, or “Battle,” we see Biber at his programmatic best. Here folk songs mix with special effects for a rollicking good time. Biber lets us know what we are in for early on: “Where the strokes are written, one must knock on the violin with the bow. You have to try this” he suggests over a passage in which little daggers are placed over the notes to represent rifle shots. He follows this with “the dissolute horde of musketeers” in which 8 well-known folk songs, all in different keys, are played together representing the drunken revels of the soldiers before battle (prefiguring Charles Ives!). “Der Mars” (The March) brings together fife and drum with the solo violin playing the part of the fife and the violone (bass) acting as drum. Here “[the bassist] must hold a piece of paper against the strings so that it rattles,” suggests Biber. After the call to order and an aria to Bacchus, the god of wine, comes the battle itself, with cannon shots resounding from the bass. “The Battle must not be played with the bow, but rather pluck the string with the right hand. Strongly!” says Biber, anticipating the “Bartok pizzicato” by more than 200 years! After the battle comes the concluding Lament for the Wounded Musketeers.
Biber was known in his lifetime as one of the greatest violin virtuosi of the day. Even 80 years after his death, the eminent 18th century musicologist Charles Burney wrote, “of all the violin players of the last century, Biber seems to have been the best, and his solos are the most difficult and fanciful of any Music I have seen of the same period.” Nonetheless, Biber’s music became largely forgotten through the 19th century. In the last forty years, however, new scholarship and the interest in historical performance practice have revived much of this great and virtuosic music. Biber’s true legacy binds the music of the 17th century to that of the 18th and, alongside such musicians as Corelli and Lully, pushed the limits of violin technique to new horizons, opening the way for Bach, Mozart, and many others to follow.
Biber’s Mensa Sonora (“Sonorous Table”) doesn't get as much play as some of his more virtuosic violin works, but it contains splendid music nonetheless. By any standard this is an excellent performance for a period-instrument group, largely because director Garry Clarke made the smart decision to use a larger-size ensemble rather than having the music played one to a part. In his booklet notes Clarke offers all kinds of ridiculous “historical” reasons supporting this decision, and it’s sad that today it is unacceptable for period-instrument performers to offer the one reason that we know would have been as valid in the composer’s own time as it is in ours: the music sounds better this way.
Mensa Sonora consists of six parts (called “Pars” appropriately enough), each containing from five to seven brief movements. These range from delicate arias and sarabandes to the vigorous and rhythmically inventive second Balletto from Pars II, and including a couple of imposing Chaconnes (in Pars III and VI). A larger ensemble gives more weight and sonority (that's “Sonora”, right?) to the big moments, and a richer but still intimate sound to the lighter ones. Sure, there’s the usual minimization of vibrato, which is wrong, but with multiple players it matters less than usual, and to his credit Clarke permits them none of that whiny squeezing of notes that so many period ensembles deploy to the point of mannerism in lyrical passages.
The Battalia makes a substantial bonus. Clarke and his company really play up the battle scene, and the drunken soldiers make a jolly cacophony. Only the final lament of the dying doesn’t quite work--it seems to me that it should be simply touching and played more or less straight, without the lachrymose chromaticism exaggerated quite so much. Of course, this is very much a matter of taste. As usual with this label, the engineering is superbly natural and well-balanced. A fine disc that all fans of Baroque music will want to consider.
David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
to download the CD booklet.