Biber published a set of violin sonatas (with continuo) in 1681, and remain widely unknown, and neglected. Andrew Manze, violinist of Romanesca, believes Biber's collection rests as a type of "philosophical manifesto," with many unanswered questions surrounding the dedication of the work, connection to other pieces, etc. Biber's famous use of scordatura (mistuning of strings) is employed twice in this set of sonatas. Variations on the early baroque "sonata" are followed here: continuous, chunked movements combining dance forms, ostinato basses, and theme/variation. When listening to these sonatas, we gain a somewhat veiled insight into Biber's personality, a man of wit, humility, humor, and above all else, a capable composer and virtuoso.
this review originally appeared in 2001 **HIF Biber: Violin Sonatas Romanesca (Manze/Toll/North) (p)1994 Harmonia Mundi** This was a very important release for Biber (in terms of his popularity today) and the ensemble, Romanesca. The British ensemble dedicated to chamber music took-on Biber's 1681 sonatas, combined with several other works: the sonata 'La Pastorella,' the Solo Sonata "Representativa" which is programmatic with the sounds of frogs, cats, and roosters; a passacaglia for solo lute, and the passacaglia for solo violin borrowed from Biber's most well-known work, the Mystery Sonatas. An important release usually means one thing: the release was met with success. This was in part true because of the reading of the Sonata solo violino-representativa. A tour-de-force, to over use an already stretched-phrase, but true. While not part of the 1681 set, it helped bring Biber to the forefront of "recently discovered" Baroque geniuses. Romanesca approaches each CD with care, and this one carries many "trademarks" that would become more evident with each release. Manze takes his time in the 1681 soantas, and at times, as with the solo passacaglia, I think this damages his performance. He performs here too, with his immediately recognizable tone (no doubt due to the Gagliano violin) and also uses a violin by Amati when scordatura requires a switch in the fourth sonata. While the violin has a tonal signature, I don't much care for it. I've discovered after many listens to many Romanesca and Manze recordings that I much prefer him with another violin under his chin. With that aside, only positive things remain for commentary on performance. The variation used in continuo here is well-done. Too often Romanesca is described as if Manze is the only performer, but great contributions are made here by Nigel North and John Toll. But above all else, it's the working togetherness of the ensemble which makes the interpretation of exciting music enticing. Take for instance the start of Sonata V on disc 2. The music is simple, but the rustic, flamboyant momentum generated by the ensemble leads us from opening prelude to a set of variations in presto tempo. As great music, Biberian effects, such as the intonation of the same tone on different strings is used to great dramatic effect. High register, almost impossible runs, and ostinato patterns that lead to harmonically interesting places. The same Sonata V, for instance, while different in character from Biber's Rosary Sonatas, carries the same high quality writing. A particularly haunting movement is track 5, CD 2, which begins with organ on this CD and apreggios in the violin... this sonata echoes the deep, meditative affect of the Rosary Sonatas with less flamoyancy. In all, Biber's sonatas offer both simliarity and contrast with his other works. Here we fine them well-performed and in good company with other fine works from his pen and bow. Highly recommended.