Six Biber Sonatas Multi-tuned Joys On Boston Fringe

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Review: 2013 Boston Early Music Festival Fringe — Biber’s Mysteries of the Rosary
By John W. Barker

The recent Boston Early Music Festival offers so much to reflect and comment on – enough surely to fill acres of electronic space. I would like to deal with just a single event among the many, of the kind too easily overlooked.

Those who attend the BEMF know that, in addition to the array of concerts in the formal program of the Festival, there is a vast number of supplemental events (I counted 93 this time!) given in churches and halls here and there, recognized as “fringe” concerts. These are presented by mostly small groups that come from far and wide, carrying a range of name recognition.

It is not just the “main” events of a festival that count, for the “fringe” ones can also offer tremendous artistic rewards. And, for my part, I could feel great pride in the fact that my distant home town of Madison, WI, could contribute such a gem of a concert to this great world-class Boston gathering.

Ensemble SDG keyboardist John Chappell Stowe, violinist Edith Hines
Ensemble SDG’s John Chappell Stowe, Edith Hines

The music in question is the set of 16 sonatas or partitas known as the Mysteries of the Rosary, or simply the Rosenkranz-Sonaten, by the great Austrian violin virtuoso Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber(1644-1704). Six of these 16 components were presented by Ensemble SDG, a little group from Madison that takes its name from Bach’s sign-off motto, Soli Deo Gloria (“Glory to God Alone”), at the First Lutheran Church of Boston.

Biber never included this cycle among his published works, and it survives only in manuscript. All but one of the sonatas is for violin and continuo, and each sonata represents a step in the Rosary devotions, identified with a given feast celebrating episodes in the life of Mary and Jesus. The heart of each (and sometimes its entire content) is a theme-with-variations movement, augmented variously by flashy preludes and eventually adding dances. Each one demands considerable virtuosic skills but also adds the challenge of stipulating a different tuning of the strings for each, in so-called scordatura practice, to allow for novel fingerings and coloristic effects.

(For an illustrated explanation, see Andrew Manze’s YouTube discussion at right.)

Augmented this time by a violone player, Philip Spray, the group is basically a duo, consisting of Baroque violinist Edith Hines and organist John Chappell Stowe. Hines has recently completed her doctorate in early performance at the School of Music of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Stowe is the professor of harpsichord and organ at that institution, and an expert of long standing in Baroque literature and performance style.

The two have steeped themselves in Biber’s remarkable music. Indeed, the first time I heard Hines perform, years ago in Madison, she played two of these sonatas, and I was amazed then not only at her confident virtuosity but also at her genuine affinity for this music.

In this BEMF program, the sonatas chosen were those labeled “The Annunciation,” “The Presentation,” “The Crucifixion,” “The Resurrection,” “The Ascension,” and “The Descent of the Holy Spirit” (i.e., Pentecost). To provide quasi-liturgical context, each sonata was preceded by the reading of a passage of Old Testament prophesy. A fine booklet of notes also gave illuminating commentary and New Testament connections for each.

Biber never intended this sonata cycle to be played as a complete entity. Apparently he performed one sonata at a time, on the appropriate feast day. But playing all or even groups of them at once runs into the problem of the individual tunings required for each sonata. Hines dealt with this in a fascinating way. She arranged to borrow violins from six makers of early string instruments who were displaying their products (including these specific ones) in the Festival’s lively Exhibition. These makers are Warren Ellison, Timothy G. Johnson, the studio of Dimitry Badiarov, Gabriela Guadalajara, Daniel Larsen, and Francis Beaulieu – from the last a particularly delightful violino piccolo. A YouTube video of Hines playing the Larsen violin is at right.

By tuning each instrument appropriately, in advance, for each of the six sonatas played, Hines avoided the scordatura logjam, moving smoothly from one to the next. At the same time, this procedure also provided a practical demonstration of these exhibitors’ creations. Artistry and commerce in sensible harmony!

I know these sonatas well, and I am always awed by their musical imagination. Perhaps it was their presentation in a church, however, that made me fully aware, for the first time, of their spiritual dimensions. Hines met the musical challenges fabulously, but her dedication to the music, in this setting, made for a special experience. I risk my critic’s credentials for objectivity, but I have to say that I was repeatedly brought near to tears of joy by the uplifting combination of music and message, conveyed so movingly.

John W. Barker is a retired professor of medieval history but he has been a passionate music lover and record collector all his life. He has been a staff reviewer for The American Record Guidefor over half a century and is currently classical music critic for the Madison weekly Isthmus and for a local blog while broadcasting regularly on early music for a local community FM station. He has also published two books on Wagner.

Editor’s Note: For a review of another BEMF Fringe event, click here.