March 21, 2024


Biber: Mystery Sonatas. Alan Choo, violin; Apollo’s Fire conducted by Jeannette Sorrell. AVIE. $26.99 (2 CDs).

Eugène Ysaÿe: Violin Concerto in E minor; Poème concertant; Two Mazurkas de salon; Rêve d’enfant. Philippe Graffin, violin; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jean-Jacques Kantorow. AVIE. $19.99.

     When Alexander Pope wrote in An Essay on Criticism of “what oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd,” he had verbiage in mind and was discussing how to define “true wit.” But Pope’s memorable formulation can apply just as well to music, whose expressive potential is certainly equal to that of words and, when well-harnessed by composers, can communicate in ways of which words are at best poorly capable. This is certainly true of Biber’s Mystery Sonatas (also known as Rosenkranzsonaten, “Rosary Sonatas,” drawing as they do on the 15 Mysteries of the Rosary). Biber’s 15 sonatas and concluding Passacaglia, written around 1676, take the words associated with meditations on the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary and give them musical accompaniment that was presumably used during actual church services (when the congregation would walk around a grouping of 15 relevant paintings and sculptures, reciting appropriate prayers related to the beads on the rosary) but that transcends the specifics of 17th-century church practice and, in some ways, even goes beyond the sacred sphere altogether. The sonatas are carefully organized into groupings of five Joyful, five Sorrowful and five Glorious Mysteries – and in the manuscript of Biber’s work, each is introduced by an appropriate engraving. What is amazing in our much-more-secular age is how communicative and deeply expressive these pieces continue to be. Alan Choo, Jeannette Sorrell and the members of Apollo’s Fire, using period instruments and with a firm understanding of historical performance practices and the expectations of Biber’s time, handle the sonatas in such a well-considered manner on a two-CD AVIE release that the music’s emotional depth comes through clearly even for listeners of different faiths or none at all. Sorrell herself plays the harpsichord here, with René Schiffer on cello and viola da gamba, Kivie Cahn-Lipman on lirone and viola da gamba, William Simms on theorbo and Baroque guitar, Brian Kay on archlute and percussion, Anna O’Connell on triple harp, and Peter Bennett on chamber organ. The performers’ meticulous attention to appropriate instruments and techniques gives the sonatas a sense of both solidity in instrumentation and evanescence in their contemplative qualities – a remarkable and very effective combination. The scordatura tuning used throughout, except in the first sonata and Passacaglia, is nowhere obtrusive: it simply helps each work better fit the tone color that Biber believes should be associated with each Mystery, allowing for the creation of chords that would be impossible on a violin with standard tuning. To modern ears, accustomed to dissonances and many forms of stretching violin technique, the remarkably apt nature of the scordatura tuning is less obvious than it would have been to churchgoers in Biber’s time, but Choo, Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire certainly know how to emphasize (yet not over-emphasize) the effects that Biber sought. Thus, in the last four Joyful Mysteries, the tunings with sharps burnish the harmonies, while the tunings in the Sorrowful Mysteries tone down the violin’s usual brightness, compress its range, and create persistent slight dissonances that are in accord with the messages of Jesus’ scourging, crowning with thorns and crucifixion. And in the Glorious Mysteries, Biber uses tunings that intensify the sound even beyond what has come before, with the first sonata in this series – the Resurrection – using a uniquely sonorous tuning that actually switches the standard placement of the second and third strings on the fingerboard. Biber’s outstanding creativity in illustrating the well-known ritual for which he composed the Mystery Sonatas transcends and expands the meaning of the words that accompanied the sonatas’ original purpose – and the sensitive, understanding playing of Apollo’s Fire ensures that even after nearly 350 years, the emotions and spiritual uplift of the story illustrated by this music have been “ne'er so well express'd.”

     The emotional expression is equally heartfelt but far more personal and intimate in two violin-and-orchestra works by Eugène Ysaÿe that receive their world premiѐre recordings on an AVIE disc featuring Philippe Graffin with conductor Jean-Jacques Kantarow and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. These are works written by Ysaÿe (1858-1931) under conditions of passion, in one case for violin performance in general and in the other for a specific violinist. Ysaÿe did not finish either work, which is why both have waited until now for their first complete recordings. The earlier and larger-scale piece, Violin Concerto in E minor, dates to 1884-85; its orchestration has been completed by Xavier Falques (Ysaÿe finished only the first two movements). When Ysaÿe wrote the concerto, he was deeply engaged with the notion of the violinist rather than the composer being the determinant of the effectiveness and ultimate meaning of a work. Certainly Ysaÿe makes the violin pivotal, not just central, to the concerto’s first movement, while the second has distinct Wagnerian overtones and chromaticism. The finale, it turns out, offers the sort of bravura display favored by other violinist/composers such as Paganini and Vieuxtemps. If the first two movements are intellectually argumentative, the third sweeps away any sense of musical debate in its strength and virtuoso demands – all of which Graffin handles adeptly. Graffin also does a fine job with Poème concertant, a later work (1893) inspired by Ysaÿe’s relationship with Irma Sèthe, whom he taught and who certainly reciprocated his feelings. Ysaÿe was, however, married when his feelings for Sèthe, who was 18 years his junior, flowered. The Poème concertant turned out to be a mutual love letter, written by Ysaÿe and performed for him in some form or forms by Sèthe – although it has only now been fully orchestrated, by Erika Vega. Certainly it has deeply emotional elements, and certainly it is poetic in its use of the violin, but it is also somewhat sprawling and discursive, without the comparatively tightly structured form of the earlier Violin Concerto in E minor. Since the Poème concertant had to be assembled from various manuscript versions even before being orchestrated, it is possible that some of the inelegance of structure results from the way it was rediscovered and stitched together. But what it certainly does have, and what comes through clearly in Graffin’s performance, is a level of emotional communicativeness that speaks volumes in the language of musical notes, although not in the written note-taking to which Pope’s pithy comment refers. The two violin-and-orchestra pieces are accompanied on this CD by some salon-like violin-and-piano ones, featuring Graffin with Marisa Gupta, that are nowhere near the same level of intensity or meaningfulness. The Two Mazurkas de salon (1882) are pleasantly rhythmic and thematically forgettable, while Rêve d’enfant (1900) – one of the composer’s most-popular pieces – is dedicated to Ysaÿe’s youngest son, Antoine (1894-1979), and comes across effectively as a gentle lullaby. The violin-and-piano works provide an interesting contrast of emotion as well as instrumentation to the much grander scale of the Concerto in E minor and Poème concertant, giving this recording as a whole some sense of exploring several different sides of Ysaÿe’s particular forms of expressiveness.

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