Hélène Schmitt violin, François Guerrier claviorgan, Massimo Moscardo archlute/theorbo, Francisco Mañalich viola da gamba, Jan Krigovsky violone
145:38 (2 CDs in a card triptych)
Regular readers will know that I am an admirer of Hélène Schmitt’s violin playing. Here, using only two violins for the entire cycle of five joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries and the peerless final Passacaglia, she lives up to everything I expect of her; a ringing clear tone (where the torturous scordatura permits), deliberate bow strokes that manage to make the strings sing out without delivering that sharp rasp that can mark some less subtle performances of this repertoire, and above all a great sense of where the music is going. The temptation in recording this set is to over-egg the continuo contribution; why the ever-changing timbre of the violin should not be enough puzzles me. I find this set satisfying in this respect because, although the colour of the accompaniment does change, it does so within distinct sections. It still does not quite accord with the fact that, in all the years I have been editing 17th-century music, I have yet to come upon a set of performing material with four copies of the continuo part. Yet, I do understand performers’ concerns that two full CDs of this music may be harder listening if the sound palette is restricted. Personally, I could listen to Hélène Schmitt playing these wonderful pieces even without accompaniment for hours. As well as an excellent essay by Peter Wollny on the historical background to the survival of Biber’s masterpiece, the booklet also includes a personal reflection on playing it by Schmitt herself. It is well worth reading.