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Fanfare Magazine: 39:4 (03-04/2016) 
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Reviewer: Robert Maxham


Heinrich Biber’s Rosary Sonatas—or Mystery Sonatas—once appeared principally, and sporadically at that, in books about the history of the violin as examples of the use of scordatura, or mistuning. The early printed editions contained many mistakes and performers who wished to perform the set would have needed to consult the manuscript and engage in a great deal of preparatory research. In the last several decades, however, this musically, technically, and psychologically demanding cycle has, through more intensive scholarship, become generally available in useful editions. That may in part explain the Rosary Sonatas’ increasing popularity among performers and, presumably, listeners as well. The sonatas still require a great deal of work before integral performance, however, as violins don’t respond well to continuous changes in pressure brought about by retuning every few minutes and to the increasing and decreasing tensions on the strings—presumably gut—as the tunings wander up and down. Ariadne Daskalakis required four instruments to make her recording (a 1732 Gennaro Gagliano, a 1769 Giovanni Baptista Guadagnini, a 1720 Peter Walmsley, and a 1989 David Rubio), although it may take more to perform them all over a period of two days. (I used five, could have done it with four, but would have liked six.) The notes don’t make clear which violins Daskalakis used in each of the sonatas.

From the flurries of notes in the opening of the “Annunciation” (the flutter of Gabriel’s wings?), it’s clear that Daskalakis employs a wide range of dynamics and produces from the violin she plays a decidedly acidulous sound that many have identified with period performance. Still, she doesn’t hurl these timbres at her listeners like so many challenges. Her scalar rapid-note passages, in fact, sound gentler and friendlier than do those of many of her colleagues. She and her ensemble (Gerald Hambitzer, organ and harpsichord; Rainer Zipperling, viola da gamba; and Simon Martyn-Ellis, theorbo) bring that first sonata to a powerful conclusion. She preserves the lightness of the dance rhythms in the Allamanda of the “Visitation.” Do these sonatas really tell a musical story, or did Biber simply assemble several older works into a pattern to curry the favor of his archiepiscopal patron? Andrew Manze affirmed their deep spirituality without taking a firm stand on their programmatic content. But Heinrich Schmelzer borrowed a movement from the “Crucifixion” for a sonata depicting the victory over the Turks. Those unconvinced by the theory that these should be considered programmatic works might single out the dark opening of the “Nativity,” but the painting of that mystery in the Salzburg chapel that Biber must frequently have visited looks very dark, so it’s back to the representation theory again, and the shuffling back and forth continues. Then, too, why does a jig (Guigue) with doubles appear in the “Crowning with Thorns”? Granted, the Adagio at the end of the “Nativity” Sonata seems almost as peaceful and reverent, if not as pastoral, as the conclusion of Corelli’s Christmas Concerto. Daskalakis and the ensemble don’t play the “Presentation” Ciacona with the aggressive articulation that others have brought to it; but she certainly draws on a wide range of expressive manners and devices in working through its variations. Given the suite-like sequence of movements (Præludium, Allamanda, Guigue, Sarabanda, and Double) of the “Finding” and the ensemble’s sweetly vigorous and fanciful realization, it should strike many listeners that the program can be, or become, almost irrelevant to the enjoyment and even the edification these works provide.

The ensemble incorporates the organ into the continuo group for the First Sorrowful Mystery (“The Agony in the Garden”), lending the movement a particularly lugubrious character; and Daskalakis makes poignant sigh-like gestures in its second half. But do the final figures, however dramatic, credibly represent drops of blood? The Romans scourge Jesus to the rhythms of an Allamanda and a Sarabanda, and crown Him with thorns to the tune of a virtuosic and exuberant Double (to a Guigue). But Daskalakis, whatever the mystery, plays with heady zest. Her barrages of rapid notes in the “Carrying of the Cross” provide violinistic pleasures of their own, as do the cheerful dance rhythms of the sonata’s Courente. The “Crucifixion,” the source of Schmelzer’s Sonata on the victory of the Christians over the Turks, contains the passages often interpreted as the hammering of nails into the Savior’s hands and feet; Daskalakis endows them with an appropriately awed solemnity, which she attempts to carry over into the ensuing Air. She and the ensemble cause the final page to rumble appropriately (representing the earthquake, the rending of the temple’s curtain—or nothing definite at all?).

The “Resurrection,” with its variations on Surrexit Christus hodie, seems to forge the closest connection between music and mystery, between program and Affekt. It also poses one of the greatest difficulties to violinists, since with the crossing of the violin’s two center strings over each other, what goes up on the page often comes down on the instrument and vice versa (Adding to this confusion, the notation indicates the positions of the fingers rather than the sounding notes.) Daskalakis and the ensemble invest this hymn with at least quasi-religious fervor. The “Ascension” features an Aria Tubicinum in imitation of horn calls and drums through an ingenious tuning that allows horn fifths to lie comfortably on the fingerboard. Listeners may feel that Daskalakis and the ensemble don’t bring a sufficiently triumphant glow of victory to this movement and that the violinist in particular sounds at least a bit awkward in the ensuing Allamanda. But she effectively characterizes the swirls of thirds that have been taken to represent the rushing winds on Pentecost in “The Descent of the Holy Ghost.” After its first movement, entitled “Sonata,” the “Assumption” comprises only a varied air that one musician referred to as the “endless” passacaglia—suggesting that he wished it might have remained unfinished. Daskalakis and the ensemble take this air at a quick tempo that causes its five-odd minutes to fly by and enhances its sense of breathless virtuosity. In the final movement of the “Coronation” listeners will discern the familiar “Amen” from Handel’s Messiah and may notice that Daskalakis doesn’t take the staccatos at the end (a crown?) off the string. She plays the by now famous Passagalia for solo violin rather quickly, with a timing of only 7:41, and adds a brief passage to flesh out the cadenza connecting its sections. Here and there, she also adds a well-placed ornament.

The ensemble fleshes out the second disc with a performance of Georg Muffat’s Sonata in D Major, a substantial work (at more than 12 minutes) written by Biber’s fellow worker for a time in Salzburg, chock full of surprises and elegant turns of phrase by both composer and performing group. Daskalakis, in particular, warms to its Italianate lyricism, and her continuo players support her sensitively and discreetly.

BIS’s entry into the Biber catalog represents the same kind of scholarship and dedication evinced by others, and if it falls short of Andrew Manze’s in intensity, or Monica Huggett’s in earthiness, her reading of Muffat’s sonata provides a bonus that could tip the balance in her favor. Recommended.

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