Biber & Biber

Concerto Stella Matutina, Johannes Hämmerle, organ and director
Fra Bernardo FB 1710593
C H Biber: Missa Resurrectionis Domini, Requiem
H I F Biber: Quasi cedrus exaltata, etc

Oddly enough this is the second CD to sport the title ‘Biber & Biber’, which might sound like a firm of German solicitors, but refers rather to the father and son team of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber and Carl Heinrich Biber. It is of course the former who is much the better known; indeed even readers of a specialist site such as EMR could be forgiven for being unaware that the elder Biber had a composer son. A quick check reveals that to date only a few instrumental works of C H Biber have reached the catalogue, so this excellent new recording concentrating on two major choral works provides a welcome opportunity to be introduced to him.

The younger Biber, Heinrich’s eighth (!) child, was born in Salzburg in 1681. Not surprisingly he studied the violin and composition with his father and also appeared in Latin school dramas with music by him. In 1704, the year of the elder Biber’s death, Carl was appointed to the court of Salzburg and also travelled to Italy, visiting Rome and Venice, where he would likely have come into contact with the young Vivaldi, recently appointed violin master at the Pietà. Subsequently he visited Vienna, but in 1714 he was appointed deputy Kapellmeister and then in 1743 promoted to Kapellmeister, making him senior to Leopold Mozart, who was appointed as a violinist in the court orchestra in the same year. C H Biber died in Salzburg in 1749.

Biber’s extant catalogue consists largely of music for the church. It survives in the archives of Salzburg Cathedral, where in excess of 120 of his works are housed. They include the Missa Resurrectionis Domini and the Requiem setting recorded here. The most surprising thing about both works is that despite Biber’s youthful contact with modern developments in Italy, they remain resolutely conservative in their adherence to solid contrapuntal techniques. Indeed, the difference in style to the three motets by his father also included on the CD is minimal. Both works conform to similar opulent orchestration as the more familiar large-scale works of Heinrich, which is to say they include parts for trumpets, trombones and timpani in addition to strings. The vocal writing, here wisely restricted to eight singers, alternates between brief episodes for the solo quartet and chorus, with very few extended solos. In both works the text is set with extreme economy, with relatively few opportunities for virtuoso solos. Occasionally, as at the telescoped ‘In incarnatus’ and ‘Crucifixus’ in the Credo of the Mass, Biber introduces a florid violin solo to remind us that he, like his father, was a violinist.

It is the Mass that is the more interesting of the two works. The Kyrie, for example, is introduced by infectiously dancing strings, while throughout exhilarating and exuberant writing for (splendidly played) punchy trumpets is never far away. But there are effective quieter moments too, as in the exquisite Benedictus duet for soprano and tenor. But the whole Mass has an engaging, upbeat ambiance. On first acquaintance the Requiem strikes me as a more perfunctory work, although it has impressive moments such as the urgent thrust of ‘Dies irae’, the soprano solo at ‘Lachrimosa’ and a certain noble dignity at the end of the Sequenz. But too much of the textural setting seems lightweight, with the supplication of the Offertorium (‘O lord deliver …) seemingly already decided by the less than humble music.

The performances are of high quality, with a good solo quartet, the soprano soloist Marie Sophie Pollak in particular being outstanding, and excellent orchestral playing from Concerto Stella Matutina. The splendid recording, made in the Seminary Church in Brixen, South Tirol, captures the often complex sounds with clarity, while at the same time creating an impressively spacious overall sound picture. The CD is well worth investigating by anyone attracted to the resplendent sound world of 17th- and 18th-century Salzburg Cathedral.

Brian Robins

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