Anton Steck records violin sonatas by Biber (and Muffat) with Hille Perl, Lee Santana, and Christian Rieger, (p) 2005 cpo. Two "students" of Goebel match with friends for an exciting CD of Biber's lesser-known violin sonatas. Just listen to the first two minutes of the first track, borrowed from Biber's better-known 1681 collection, and you know this CD is a real winner. It is sold as a SACD but played back fine on my computer.
Steck has played on many a CD I have with Musica Antiqua Köln, but I'd never heard him as a soloist before; he plays with energy, drama, and tight control. His sound is not as rich as Goebel, but he has a real technical facility and his direction of where these sonatas go is spot-on interesting and brings Biber's notes up front and close. At times his continuo team can sound heavy, but they play together very well, a very practiced team. Each of the continuo instruments played has an excellent sound, from the crisp harpsichord, to the gamba, and bass lutes. The interpretations here are the most interesting part of the disc. Steck takes parts where we expect things to go slow, and he takes us through those harmonic progressions, moving us along, exhilarated as we reach the next gesture. In the first sonata, in particular, practically every human emotion is touched upon, from high intense drama, to sweet repose. Each sonata is not as diverse with each turn into a new section, but instead we get wisely chosen tempi and sensitive playing that illuminates the best of what Biber left in ink on paper. Biber's Ciacona in D was a work new to me, and opens on the CD with lute and gamba. Then we hear the harpsichord with the plucking mechanism (quills) on. It is an interesting work, as I think any good ciacona is, for allowing a composer to work out a theme and variations over the same, repeated bass. What Biber does differently, perhaps, than other well-known works like this in "D" is emphasize textures. Short punchy notes, then of course passages of notes that rumble and ramble around the core chord progression... it takes some inventiveness from players to make a play on textures work, and this ensemble does well. In the middle, Biber turns on the fireworks, with so many notes going past, you wonder how it's possible... Steck performs admirably, of course, making those runs sound effortless. In some instances, the ensemble tries its best to deal with Biber's poor writing; at several intervals, they pause, stop, and resume at a different tempo. Biber maintains the same bass, so they can't do terribly much here, and I for one would have liked a turn to the minor mode. Instead, Biber gets chromatic on us towards the end; and texture plays out too, with contributions both from the violin soloist and also the continuo. What we're left with is a candy bar, in essence, that's a lot of a few things, but so interesting too... smooth in places, really crunchy in others, and in the end, very satisfying. The Muffat work is certainly not new to many folks reading this, and it's hard to say how many versions of this venerable work I own. The first, slow section, is played quite admirably here, perhaps it is my favorite reading. The rest of the work, including the odd changes of key, played by the ensemble here, are excellent, a fitting touch to a jewel of a disc. This is perhaps one of the best Biber recitals I've heard in recent months, if not the past year. Highly recommended, Biber fans should not be disappointed.
Originally published in October, 2005.