I love music.

I write about the music I like and have purchased for the benefit of better understanding it and sharing my preferences with others.

Biber by Bismuth

Since discovering the recording of HIF Biber's Rosenkranz or "Mystery" Sonatas by Patrick Bismuth, I've been after more by the French violinist. The most recent find was his book four of sonatas by Jean-Marie Leclair. Here, then, was my original June, 13, 2005 review of Bismuth with his ensemble, La Tempesta. Patrick Bismuth, with ensemble La Tempesta, records the Rosary Sonatas by HIF Biber, ZigZag Territories, (p) 2005 I love recordings that make me smile. This is such an example. You think you know a work well, right? And you've got a few key recordings en-grained into your head, and then comes along a performer, and here, really an ensemble, that bends the rules, plays differently, and the result is near sublime. Where Alice Piérot used a "zoo's worth" of continuo, that many times "got into the way," here, the zoo is back, but it is tamed so that our star shines in front. From the wonderful opening in the Annunciation, Biber's first mystery sonata, to the tender beginning of the Nativity (#3), we begin to appreciate Bismuth's style. The second style of the Nativity pulses like a dance, even though it's not forced upon us. Here, too, we can really focus on Bismuth's playing style, which for me, deserves some explanation. First, he plays all the sonatas on the same instrument, which has a remarkable veiled, French sound. Bismuth's strength in terms of his playing sound is his ability to really vary dynamics especially well on different notes, much to the benefit of the musical line and on strong/weak beats. Changes in dynamic are a powerful component to his style of playing. Another component which I am far less enamored by is his use of vibrato. He manages to suppress it in sections, for no discernible reason, but then it shows up again, even in double stops. It's not a modern-style vibrato, but one that is slow, yet, wide enough to grate on my nerves at times... this is definitely coloring the sound of his instrument, and I simply would care for much less of it. And yes, this is peppered throughout each track. With that negative out of the way, I happily report that his style of playing, in terms of rhythm and precision is a delight. He sounds as if he is the most relaxed player you ever did hear, jumping from the easy, melodic sections, right into the faster, technical passages that Biber throws the violin. You almost get the sense that Bismuth is easy on his feet, and might be a good dancer... he's a technically polished musician, but his freeness and his ability to simply float above the bass, with an almost effortless feel when he plays, is remarkable. The sound quality on this recording is good; it's a bit live, but the instruments are well balanced and the violin is miked closed enough to grab every detail. Different continuo instruments realize the bass, and the combination and choices sound like good solutions. I will comment again on this issue: I am not sure Biber would have ever performed the works with such variety, but, Ensemble La Tempesta does a good job here, they really support the music; the gamba player is especially good, some of my smiles were a result of what I heard down low, too. In Biber's sonata, translated "Carrying of the Cross," the music opens in a solemn sound world, and the Affekt of all the instruments together is contemplative, painful, and at the same time, delicious. After the opening, Biber moves to a courante and the courante's double. My only complaint in the courante is that shaking left hand, again. It's appropriate in spots, yes, but I almost want to suggest that Bismuth lays off the liquor. An unfair association to the sound, but that's what comes to mind. In rising lines, we hear the busy work made of both the organ and the gamba... good stuff, hidden away, like truffles in the dirt. When the notes get fast, Bismuth is at the ready, good intonation throughout, and I sit smiling, admiring the richness of sound and harmony that Biber and these musicians have contributed to my ears. In a personal favorite, Descent of the Holy Spirit Bismuth opens with a fuller continuo, pulls back, and then lays it in on an extended bass note, until the harmony finally resolves... the retuning of his violin exhibits some of the uneven qualities of the instrument, but this is no flaw, this is what happens in scordatura. I believe it would be his "D" string that projects far less. An incredible intimacy is brought to light during the opening of the sonata's gavotte. The sound world grows in intensity as the repeats are performed with added continuo. The ornaments realized in the gigue are technically fun, at least fun sounding. While the speed here isn't breakneck, the pulse of the dance's rhythm is quite strong and foot tapping is sure to accompany your listen, as it did mine. All of the new Biber Mystery Sonatas I have picked up as late have something good to offer the listener. It is, perhaps this recording, however, above the others, that does more for illuminating Biber's music. A good recording, a keen sense of rhythm and musical line, and a colorful continuo team here promote the discs to the forefront. Bismuth's manner of playing is interesting enough to surprise us, to delight us, and I very warmly recommend this recording. I do have reservations in his "sound," which is unique, that vibrato. Yet, even so, it would be criminal to avoid this disc for this matter alone. A well-planned and executed recording.

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Virtuoso Cantatas