John Holloway and Tragicomedia perform the 15 Mystery Sonatas of Biber, (p) 1990 Virgin Veritas I first reviewed this collection of Biber's Mystery Sonatas in April of 2003. Back then, I wrote:
I first heard this 1991 Gramophone Magazine award-winner for best instrumental baroque recording while in college, at the Eastman School of Music. I had just bought my Goebel recording (reviewed here earlier), and my initial reaction was that it was inferior, and not worth the $32. Some 10 years later, I return to purchase it, in the years since, it has maintained a following in the press and through personal accounts; and for half-price, it ought to be in a biberfan’s personal collection. No? The notes were a big disappointment; I remember more from reading the original notes than what was presented in this set. I remember in the first, Holloway discussing his standing on a platform in an archway, or some such architectual feature, to acheive good sound. Hearing it now, despite that, I felt that the recording suffers quite a bit. I can imagine standing towards the back of a medium-sized church, empty, and this is what it sounds like. To record from that distance, you lose definition of sound in the wash of reverb. I think microphone placement in this case is to blame; the reverb is nice, but it’s too… sostenuto for violin playing. What I wrote about then still holds true now. The recording better captures an acoustic rather than the performers. I suppose if I close my eyes, and imagine myself in a cathedral, or some space larger than my small office where I listen now, I can "be there." But still lost is the detail that a closer recording would have warranted. Holloway uses a robust continuo team here. Back in '03, I said: The continuo on this recording is rich: lute, lirone, harpsichord, harp, and at one point, regal. At times, again because of the mike placement, I feel they over-power Mr. Holloway. The addition of deep lirone in some cases, however, is very satisfying and a great addition. This recording is special, however, not for the sound or continuo color but for the very introspective nature of the interpretation. While other performers (for me, Letzbor and Goebel) find the fireworks in Biber’s music, and even (for Goebel) over-vibrate the strings, Holloway is savoring each note and line. This is a nice variation. His recording might have been stronger for elements of both, but compared to other recordings, this pace which speaks more of leisure for the sweetness of sound is refreshing. That contemplative nature of playing is what dominates the most recent recording by Andrew Manze. Manze and Holloway are closer in some respects, and wider in others. They tend to both approach these works as contemplative prayers, but the difference in their treatment of the continuo is of course profound, Manze choosing to pair with just one bass instrument. The recorded sound prevents me from really enjoying the music making in this set. I think Biber did write these works to be show pieces, and in some cases, Holloway could be more extrovert in tempo or style. But he is far more showy than Manze, as a comparison, and likely his recording, while older, surpasses that of Manze. My advice: check out the recording (now at a sweet price), but if you're a recording engineer, please mike closer to our musicians.