Biber: Mystery Sonatas

Una Tur Bonet, Musica Alchemica
124:52 (2 CDs)
Pan Classics PC 10329

Unlike Anne Schumann’s take on The Mystery Sonatas, the present recording sees five continuo players (of ten instruments between them!) accompanying the violinist. Some people may enjoy this approach, and occasionally the reedy sound of the regal and the lush harmonics of the lirone did bring something new to the performances, but actually – as HIPsters – should we be encouraging this approach? Did 17th-century musicians really have the time to sit down and plan out in advance who would accompany which passage, and which not? If so, where are all the surviving parts that contain even the slightest of hints? I know some scores are very clear about characters in musical dramas being shadowed by certain instrumental colours, but I’ve never seen a continuo part that specifies a constant to-ing and fro-ing of this sort. I think, like every other sort of “representative” music, these sonatas imitate worldly (and other worldly) sounds through very simple means and using this battery of auditory devices is akin to a voice over. Or there is a fear that the ear will get tired hearing the same texture for 15 whole sonatas. Actually, even if each sonata were accompanied consistently by a different combination of instruments, the overall effect would have been less irksome, and – of course – when it comes to the final Passigalia, there is only one option: unaccompanied violin.

Here, though, Tur Bonet does confirm her qualities as a Biber fiddler; nicely paced, with lots of space around the notes, no showiness. After her opening “mission statement”, the booklet notes contain a sonata by sonata two-page spread sequence of arty photo to the left and discussion of the different scordature on the right, but I found the translations difficult to understand; not that the rather poetic sounding Spanish was easier! I suggest simply listening to the fabulous music and ignoring the booklet.

Brian Clark