Chamber Music No.6

Sonatae unarum fidium – No.4 in D
Mystery (Rosary) Sonatas – No.1 in D (The Annunciation); No.6 in C minor (The Agony in the Garden); No.10 in G minor (The Crucifixion of Jesus)
Suite No.12 in C
Lamentation sur la mort de sa Majesté, Ferdinand III

Andrew Manze (violin)
Richard Egarr (harpsichord & chamber organ)

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 23 August, 2004
Venue: Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

As summer dies and autumn was already making itself felt on this rain-drenched Monday, it was perhaps fitting that this Chamber Prom should be such a sombre affair. Not that there was any shortage of colour. This recital, which centred around a selection from the Mystery Sonatas of Biber and two elegiac harpsichord works by Froberger felt like the aural equivalent of sitting in a small church, the beautifully dressed but monochrome stone relieved by the occasional stained glass window.

The recital certainly began colourfully. Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (1623-1680), a violin virtuoso and leader of the Viennese Court Chapel orchestra, was also charged with providing ballets for court entertainment; the resulting suites of dances did much to define the character of Viennese music as we know it today. The Sonata in D is part of his collection “Sonatae unarum fidium” (sonatas for one violin), and is cast in the form of a ‘quilt canzona’, a patchwork of short contrasting sections, although in this instance given greater homogeneity as a set of variations on a ground bass.

Thus the first sounds we heard were the four descending tones of the bass motif played with the left hand on the harpsichord before the music’s texture sparkled, flashed, grew dim and revealed its shimmering entirety in a series of broad cantilenas, frenzied elaborations and improvisatory fancies, climaxing in a lively dance. Manze’s violin sang, whispered and shouted above the arabesques and ringing chords of Egarr’s harpsichord.

The Bohemian composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704) was, like his teacher Schmelzer, a violin virtuoso of the first rank, as well as a fine composer of sacred choral music (as those who attended the Proms performance of his Missa bruxellensis will have discovered). His set of 16 sonatas, entitled the Rosary or Mystery sonatas, are evocative meditations on the life of Mary and the passion of Christ, perhaps designed for the enhancement of private devotions (the manuscript is illustrated with scenes from the New Testament). The sonatas demonstrate Biber’s extension of the resources of the baroque violin, with greater use of the higher positions, novel bowing techniques, extensive double stopping and frequent changes in tuning (scordatura).

Manze, this time accompanied by Egarr on the chamber organ, showed how such virtuosity could be completely subordinated to the expressive exigencies of the text (musical or spiritual). His rendering of the first sonata of the set (The Annunciation) was simplicity itself, the introduction imbued with an air of expectancy – this despite the demands made on technique in the theme and variations which followed. The sonata came to a shining rest with the repeated tones of a plainchant ‘Amen’.

While Manze went backstage to allow his violin to settle into a new tuning for the next Rosary sonata, Richard Egarr performed Johann Jacob Froberger’s Suite in C for harpsichord. Froberger (1616-1667) was in the employ of Ferdinand III at the Viennese court, although he spent much of his time travelling abroad; in addition to studying with Frescobaldi in Rome, he also absorbed much of the French and German school of keyboard playing and composition. This suite, although using the typical French dances, is not in the usual order and includes an Allemande in the guise of a heart-rending tombeau (‘Lamento sopra la dolorosa perdita della RM di Ferdinando IV’) for the death of the King’s son. Thus the suite becomes, bracketed as it is by two slow movements, an extended elegy for the dead child.

Andrew Manze then rejoined Egarr (on chamber organ) for another Mystery sonata – No.6 (The Agony in the Garden). This performance took on a decidedly plaintive hue, the scordatura of the violin encasing frequent dissonance, chromatic passages and pleading motivic fragments with a weird, otherworldly sonority. Egarr was then left alone with his harpsichord to offer up another kind of prayer in the form of Froberger’s Lamentation sur la mort de sa Majesté, Ferdinand III, another tombeau, this time for the father. This beautiful piece, full of bittersweet harmonies and trembling embellishments, ends, as does the previous lament on the death of Ferdinand’s son, with a descending scale, although this time with the added touch of three repeated Fs in the upper register, a musical rendering of Ferdinand III himself.

Biber’s Rosary sonata No.10 ‘The Crucifixion of Jesus’ was the final item, but not before an additional comment by Manze about the scordatura of the violin (which had undergone another re-tuning, this time closer to its standard). As he sees it, the violin (which spends most of its life in one tuning, to which the wood of the violin becomes “attuned”), is made to undergo a journey of suffering in imitation of Christ by theses various re-tunings. This can be felt by the performer – the wood of the violin struggles against each new tuning. For this reason, he added, it is better to re-tune a single violin during the course of a performance rather than (as some performers of the sonatas do) use several violins. Following this little aside, Manze and Egarr (this time on the harpsichord) presented Biber’s evocation of Christ’s sufferings on the cross: harsh, almost savage passages giving way to peaceful, luminous melodies, fading out pianissimo as Christ gives up his spirit. This was a poignant finish to a thought-provoking concert.

  • Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 28 August at midday
  • BBC Proms 2004

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