Friday, September 9, 2022

Schmelzer & Biber - the Austrian violin school

Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (c1623-1680) can be considered the founder of the Austrian violin school. After he was accepted into the Vienna court orchestra in 1649, he was able to fully develop his skills, also as a composer. In this function he was responsible for the ballet music that was performed during the carnival period. In 1664 Schmelzer published his first - and only - collection of solo sonatas, entitled Sonatae unarum fidium [1]. They testify to the advanced playing technique of the composer, including in the area of ​​bowing and the extension of the tessitura to the highest positions of the fingerboard of the time. Musically, the sonatas stand out with brilliant variations over an ostinato bass and strong contrasts in the area of ​​affects. Gunar Letzbor recorded the entire collection and in his liner-notes he points out that the sonatas become increasingly sombre as they progress. He connects this with the situation in Europe at the time, such as the attacks by the Turks and repeated plague pandemics. Schmelzer himself fell victim to such a pandemic in 1680. The six sonatas are extended by a Ciaccona in A, which once again demonstrates Schmelzer's technique of variation. And then there are two ballets that might serve as entertaining intermezzos. They show another, less serious side of the composer. The Austrian/Central European music of the late 17th century is at the heart of Letzbor's repertoire. He has already made many excellent recordings of such music, and this recent disc may well represent the ideal interpretation of Schmelzer's sonatas. His playing is colourful, dynamically differentiated and always rooted in rhetorics. The different affects are effectively communicated. Letzbor's colleagues in his ensemble offer an substantial contribution with their realisation of the basso continuo. This recording perfectly documents how amazing and exciting Schmelzer's music is.

Although Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704) cannot be considered a formal pupil of Schmelzer, there were contacts between the two and it is difficult to imagine that Schmelzer's sonatas did not influence Biber. Both followed the developments in violin playing in the more northern regions of the German-speaking part of Europe. Schmelzer had already done that, and Biber adds a lot more. This is well expressed in his collection Sonatae, Violino solo [2] from 1681. In Schmelzer's music double stops and the use of scordatura are rare, while they are among the hallmarks of Biber's music. And he doesn't shy away from surprises. Using a scordatura tuning in a sonata is one thing, but Sonata VI requires a retuning in the middle of the piece. Like Schmelzer, Biber may have often improvised, and this is indicated by the opening and closing of Sonata I, where the violin moves over a pedal point. Biber also repeatedly resorted to the form of variation. Lina Tur Bonet recorded the sonatas I, III, V and VI, and in the first three there is a section entitled Variatio, whereas in Sonata VI we find one entitled Passagagli. In the liner-notes to his recording of the entire collection (Symphonia, 1994), Gunar Letzbor points out that the sonatas follow an particular order in their sequence of keys. This is lost in a selection. From the fact that Lina Tur Bonet only recorded four of the eight sonatas we probably may conclude that the remaining four are going to be recorded in due course. The programme is extended with the Partia VII from Harmonia artificioso-ariosa from 1696, for two viole d'amore and basso continuo. One could describe the interpretations by Lina Tur Bonet and her colleagues as theatrical in their treatment of dynamics and tempo, which emphasizes the contrasts within each single piece. This is reinforced by the sizeable line-up of the basso continuo. The result is a captivating performance of these brilliant sonatas. I don't know how many recordings of these works exist, but Biber fans should definitely not miss this production.

Among the best-known and most frequently recorded works by Biber are the so-called Mystery Sonatas [3]. They have become known under this title - at least in the English-speaking world; in German they are called Rosenkranz-Sonaten. We do not know what title Biber gave his sonatas, as they were never printed and the title page has been lost. The collection includes fifteen sonatas for violin and basso continuo and a passacaglia for unaccompanied violin. In the manuscript there is an engraving for each sonata, which depicts one of the mysteries of the rosary. The sonatas are divided into three sections of five sonatas each: the joyful mysteries (from the Annunciation to the visit of twelve-year-old Jesus to the temple), the sorrowful mysteries (from Christ's passion in Gethsemane to his crucifixion) and the glorious mysteries (resurrection and ascension of Christ, the descent of the Holy Ghost and assumption and coronation of Mary). The passacaglia is preceded by an image of a guardian angel with a child. Little is known for certain about the reasons of the composition, or the circumstances under which they were or should be performed. They are dedicated to the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg, Max Galdolph von Kuenberg. They may have been intended for performance in his private chapel during his meditations on the mysteries of the Rosary. But it is also possible that they were performed in the Aula Academica of the Jesuits in Salzburg. This aspect is not unimportant, for example with regard to acoustics and the question of which instruments are suitable for the basso continuo. In this aspect performers go very different ways. There are recordings with a large basso continuo group, consisting of string and keyboard instruments, and often also plucked instruments such as theorbo and harp. Some recordings were made in pretty large venues, others in more intimate surroundings. Lucie Sedláková Hulová and Jaroslav Tuma decided to record the sonatas in the Church of the Visitation of the Virgin Mary in Horni Police with a two-manual organ tuned to a'=415 Hz. I can't remember ever having heard a recording with such an organ. This recording could therefore represent an interesting alternative to the many available recordings. However, such a recording seems to me to be on shaky ground from a historical point of view. In my opinion, this music itself proves that it is not suitable for a large church space. The effects intended by Biber to depict the mysteries don't come off to full effect. However, that is also due to Lucie Sedláková Hulová's performance. Her playing as such is excellent and she produces a beautiful tone. However, in some sonatas, especially those about Christ's scourging and his crucifixion, I found her performances too harmless. Such pieces need a more dramatic approach. As I said, this production could be considered as an alternative, but it didn't really convince me.

In 1683 a collection of twelve sonatas by Biber was published in Nuremberg under the title Fidicinium Sacro-Profanum [4]. The full title reads in English translation: "Music sacred and profane for stringed instruments, arranged with art for the court and for the church." From this it can be concluded that these sonatas are suitable both for domestic use and for the liturgy. Like the Mystery Sonatas, they are dedicated to Biber's employer, Max Gandolph von Kuenburg. The first six sonatas are in five parts - for two violins, two violas and basso continuo - and the remaining six are in four parts: violin, two violas and basso continuo. One may assume that the first group was composed primarily for liturgical purposes because of the dense texture of the sound, which is reminiscent of the consort music of the renaissance and the early baroque period, and the second for the chamber. However, there is no fundamental difference between the two groups. Both contain solemn and dramatic, almost theatrical sections. In the second group, the part of the first viola does not differ significantly from that of the violin, and that is why it is played on the violin in the recording by Harmonie Universelle. The performers seem to have had liturgical performances in mind, as the heart of the basso continuo group is an organ built by Balthasar König in 1714 in the former monastery church of Nederehe, which has nine manual registers and an attached pedal. Between the two groups of sonatas, Francesco Corti plays the Toccata XII from the collection Apparatus musico-organisticus by Georg Muffat, who was Biber's colleague in Salzburg for several years. Harmonie Universelle is an excellent ensemble whose style of interpretation is clearly modelled after that of the former Musica antiqua Köln. This means: sharp articulation, clear dynamic contrasts and a wide range of colours, all rooted in the awareness of the rhetorical and affective nature of this repertoire. In short: an exciting and stylistically convincing interpretation of these great sonatas.

[1] Johann Heinrich Schmelzer: "Violin Sonatas"
Gunar Letzbor, violin; Ars Antiqua Austria
Pan Classics PC 10436 (© 2022) details

[2] Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber: "Violin Sonatas"
Lina Tur Bonet, violin; Musica Alchemica
Glossa GCD 924701 (© 2022) details

[3] Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber: "Rosenkranz-Sonaten"
Lucie Sedláková Hulová, violin; Jaroslav Tuma, organ
Arta F10256 (© 2020) details

[4] Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber: Fidicinium Sacro-Profanum
Harmonie Universelle/Florian Deuter, Mónica Waisman
Accent ACC 24357 (© 2019) details

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