Biber: Mensa Sonora; Battalia. Baroque Band conducted by Garry Clarke. Cedille. $16.99.
Spohr: Concertantes Nos. 1 and 2 for Two Violins; Violin Duet in G, op. 3, no. 3. Henning Kraggerud and Øyvind Bjorå, violins; Oslo Camerata and Barratt Due Chamber Orchestra conducted by Stephan Barratt-Due. Naxos. $8.99.
Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704) was one of the best violinists and most creative composers of his time, famed for his use of scordatura in his Mystery Sonatas and elsewhere. But he was, after all, a Baroque composer, dependent on the largesse of the nobility for his commissions and livelihood, and therefore needed to produce a certain number of works “to order,” as it were. Mensa Sonora is one of them – it was written as background music for elaborate dinners, and therefore falls into the same “occasional music” category as, say, Handel’s Water Music. But Biber, like Handel some time later, was not content merely to complete his assignment. He wrote something of genuine creativity and real musical interest, even knowing that little of it would probably be audible during the meals at which it would be played. But everything is of course quite easy to hear – and excellently so – in the Baroque Band’s performance. This Chicago-based original-instrument ensemble, founded in 2007 by its leader, Baroque violinist Garry Clarke, delivers a big sound for Biber’s music despite using only 15 players (including continuo). In fact, it is a bigger sound than Mensa Sonora usually gets, since it is generally performed one instrument to a part. The additional performers – and this is still a small ensemble – give the 39 pieces (arranged in “Pars I” through “Pars VI”) a fair amount of heft and a lot of rhythmic vitality. There are a few standouts, often in the extremely short numbers: the half-minute “Balletto” in Pars IV, for example, and the equally short concluding “Sonatina” in Pars VI. But it is the cumulative effect of the performance that is most impressive here, showing Biber’s ability in multiple dance forms as well as in miniature sonatas and sonatinas. And he was skilled in program music, too, as Battalia shows. This work is best known for its extraordinary second movement, in which eight folk songs in different keys are played simultaneously – multiple tonalities in 1673! But that is only one-tenth of this nine-minute work, which also features such unusual performance techniques as intense plucking and the use of paper against the strings of the bass. The battle of the work’s title lasts only 45 seconds, the balance of the music being given over to preparations and, after the fight, a lament for the wounded. Here Clarke and the Baroque Band show just how effectively a 17th-century composer, using only strings, could paint a tonal picture while also extending performers’ techniques and expanding listeners’ auditory perceptions.
Louis Spohr and Biber barely occupied the same century – Biber died in 1704 and Spohr was born in 1784 – but Spohr retained a healthy respect for the Baroque and at times incorporated the approaches of earlier music into his own (perhaps explaining why his works, much admired in their own time, fell into disfavor as Romanticism flowered). The two-violin Concertante No. 1 (A major, 1808) and Concertante No. 2 (B minor, 1833) are particularly striking examples of Spohr’s indebtedness to the earlier era. The violins are not in competition in these works – instead, they support each other. Both works are in the traditional three movements of a concerto (and are wrongly identified as concertos on the front of the new Naxos CD), but Spohr likely gave them the more apt “Concertante” designation to highlight their relatively light weight and their instrumental resemblance to pieces of the Baroque era. Interestingly, though, the first concerto is more backward-looking than the second, which harmonically and stylistically looks into the future and features one effect in which the two soloists, both playing in double stops, sound like a string quartet. The all-Norwegian performances of these works, under the auspices of Oslo’s Barratt Due Institute of Music, are well-balanced and thoroughly effective ones, led by violinist and institute director Stephan Barratt-Due (whose name has a hyphen, which the institute does not use). As a kind of encore, the soloists offer one of Spohr’s duets for violin teacher and pupil – although in this particular one, the two performers appear as equals, intertwining with poise and elegance.
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