Kati Debretzeni – violin
Penelope Spencer – violin
Alison McGillivray – viola da gamba & violone
Adam Woolf – trombone
Matthew Wadsworth – theorbo & baroque lute
Robert Howarth – harpsichord & organ
In the second half of the 17th century, a handful of virtuosos established a clear Austro-German supremacy of the violin over its birthplace, Italy. Amongst them Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber stands out both as composer and as violinist. History has done him justice: he is today more popular then ever. His life is well documented, and his major instrumental collections are widely published and recorded. His formative years, however, are merely speculated upon, and they are the focal point of this recording.
Biber was born on Aug. 12th, 1644, in Wartenberg (now Stráz pod Ralskem), Bohemia. The first documents concerning his life come from the court of Prince-Bishop Carl Lichtenstein-Castelcorn (1624-'95), bishop of Olmouc, whose services he entered at Kremsier (today Kromeríž, in the Czech Republic) as "chamber servant" in 1668. Their parting of ways only two years later is infamous: Biber, ever the opportunist, took off without obtaining permission to leave, and entered the services of Maximilian Gandolph, Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg – no doubt following an offer for better wages. He spent the rest of his life in Salzburg, working his way up to the title of ‘Kappelmeister’. His fame as virtuoso violinist "was well known to great many courts", as he himself wrote humbly in his second (and granted) petition for knighthood. By his latter years, he was a well published, successful, and moderately wealthy musician. A man who no doubt enjoyed earthly pleasures, he planted a small garden and cultivated wine is his last decade of life. On the 3rd of May 1704 "in the night between twelve and one o'clock [...] after four days of outstanding illness [...the] Kappelmeister, after receiving the holy sacraments, and with the most beautiful resignation, fell gently asleep in God's will".
Biber is a prime exponent of Kirchner's stylus phantasticus in his use of an inventive, elaborate, extravagant, ever surprising and quirky violinistic virtuosity. His highly individual style can be traced back to his early works for solo violin which survive mainly in two collections: in the Archiepiscopal Archives in Kromeríž, and in a late 17th century manuscript (MS 726) containing over one hundred Austro-German violin sonatas, preserved at the Minoritenkonvent, Vienna.
Another suggested teacher for Biber is Antonio Bertali (1605-'69), Schmelzer's predecessor at Vienna. An early work thought to demonstrate this connection is a Sonata à 3, for 2 violins and trombone ascribed to " H.B." at Kromeríž. It has long been attributed to Biber, and even published as his work. Bertali wrote a number of similar sonatas for exactly the same scoring. If the work is by Biber, he might be trying his hand at writing ‘in the style of’, as any novice composer would. Another possibility is that the work has so far been mis-catalogued. The initials "H.B” could easily be interpreted as "A.B.", standing for Bertali himself. The fact that there is not an iota of Biberesque elements in either of the solo violin passages points to this option. The second of these is, however, more fanciful than any other in Bertali's works. Was it written with the young Biber in mind?
The Bishop had a well documented partiality to ‘pizarren Sachen’ – the bizarre effects of mistuned violins and naïve-pictorial elements in music. A Fantasia, utilising the scordatura A-e-a-d’ is preserved in the Vienna manuscript. It is an earlier form of Sonata no. 4 from the 1681 set of Eight Sonatas, its opening and a ‘Gigue’ section being almost identical to passages in the later work. That it is a much earlier version is betrayed by the flurry of undeveloped ideas. Incoherent in form and content alike, it possesses an almost tangible burst of unrestrained energy. The extremely active bass part is outstanding beyond comparison: figured only scarcely, it climbs above the violin part, reaching an upper limit of e'! It was probably conceived with the viola da gamba in mind, and the viol might have realised the continuo part on its own. It may well have been composed at Kremsier, or earlier still, and it is perhaps this, or a similar piece that prompted the Bishop to write: "he played the violin, the bass, and the viola da gamba, and also composed with considerable ability."
One of Biber's most striking early works is a Sonata in C minor, an incarnation of Sonata no. 6 from 1681. The opening section is identical to the later version, but the Passacaglia that follows is completely different. It has the features of a lament - the introspective simplicity and the compete lack of violinistic fireworks (even double stops) are in sharp contrast with the later version. The ending, on the highest note of the piece, evokes the image of the child lead to heaven by the Guardian Angel, familiar from the famous Passacaglia for solo violin. We know that Biber became very ill during his stay at Kremsier. This might be the afterthought of a grave illness. A lute arrangement of the Passacaglia from the 1681 version survives at the library of the Kremsmünster monastery. Its author, Ferdinand Fischer (1652-1725), was a monk well known for his skills as a lutenist. Intended perhaps for the amateur, it is heavily simplified, almost re-written. Maybe a third (now lost) version was the basis of this adaptation.
An anomaly in every way, perhaps sent to Vienna to show off the formidable talents of the young composer, is a lengthy Sonata in E major. Its form and simplistic harmonic structure expose an inexperienced composer. In the opening 56 bars all in E major Biber simply cannot tire of his own ability to improvise violinistic pyrotechnics. Of the following two consecutive sets of Aria and Variations, a favourite device, neither has the inventiveness of later examples. They could possibly constitute an ‘optional’ choice for the performer - a view taken in this recording. Next comes a folk tune and its divisions which wouldn't be out of place in a gipsy band's repertoire. The lengthy closing section is a final show-off of an undoubtedly young Biber.
The three centuries that passed have done nothing to diminish the impact of Biber's music. He never fails to surprise and to astonish. These youthful works, with their imperfections, show Biber pushing boundaries further than anyone before him. They draw a smile with the sheer audacity of experimentation - and evoke the words of Jakob Stainer, the violin maker, who called him "der vortreffliche Virtuos": "the formidable virtuoso, Herr Biber." Kati Debretzeni: 2002