Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr perform Biber's Rosary Sonatas for violin and continuo, on Harmonia Mundi. In October of 2004, I first reviewed this collection, in a comparison to other sets of Biber's 15 Rosenkranz Sonaten for violin. Below, I give some updated thoughts, from February, 2011.
Beznosiuk and Manze take different approaches to their recordings. While the first uses a variety of violins and continuo groupings (theorbo, bowed bass, harpsichord and organ), Manze uses one single violin and a single keyboard player (Richard Egarr) on harpsichord or organ. One track brings in bowed bass (sonata 12). Typically, performers use different instruments due to the requirements in these sonatas of re-tuning in the instruments in odd and curious ways. In sonata #13, “Decent of the Holy Spirit,” Manze’s violin sound is veiled and muted. Manze’s choice to use one instrument is an interesting one, for we get to hear, as closely as possible, the sound change the scordatura inflicts upon the instrument. As a bonus, Manze speaks and demonstrates the mistuning of strings in the ultimate track in his set. Manze’s reading is clearly superior, if for nothing else, the sound quality of the recording. His sound isn’t as distant as Holloway’s, but he’s also not “inside my head” like the Beznosiuk recording is. While Manze’s reading of Sonata 13 is a bit slow for my taste, what’s most remarkable is the non-Manze type sound he has. I could probably pick-out Manze’s sound (on his Gagliano violin) any day of the week, but playing here on an earlier Amati instrument, we almost suspect there’s a different violinist behind the instrument. I believe Manze set out to record these works with a major premise: that the audience/function of these works was to serve as a private devotion. These were introspective works to be contemplated and considered as prayers. His performance, therefore, is throughtful, careful, and considerate, rather than extrovert, or virtuosic. Virtuoso skills are required, but he seems not to be celebrating virtuosity for the sake of playing in a histrionic fashion. The recording is good, I still believe, but the premise used when peforming the works, I bethink, wrong. While the works could have been considered for private religious devotions, I think, like all of other Biber's sonatas, to be virutoso expressions that ought to be celebrated as such. In other words, speed those puppies up ala shifting moods of fast and slow (ala phantasticus), and give us a real show.
Manze's approach with Egarr is lean. While the collection has its moments, I ultimately prefer other collections as superior.
If you follow my blog, you know I'm a huge fan of Reinhard Goebel. After recording the Biber Mystery Sonatas around 1990, he took a sabbatical from playing the violin after sustaining a hand injury. It was if the Biber cursed him. We waited a long time for Manze's recording, but boy how he had changed since his ground-breaking Biber disc with Romanesca, that likely jump-started his solo career, making a few dozen discs with Harmonia Mundi. Manze has dropped off the earth, in terms of Baroque music. I often wonder what happened - why the sudden departure from the English Concert - why go to conducting modern music - and falling off our bandwagon of baroque recordings? Was he tired of the repertoire? Or did the Biber do him in? It seems Egarr still is interested, with his work with the AAM and his solo recitals. In returning to this collection, I often admire the fact that the two chose to do this music as a duo. Egarr, especially, was up to the task, brining a variety of color to his keyboards. The opening of Finding Jesus in the Temple, the fifth sonata, has a wonderfully prickly harpsichord, which is both sonorous and ripe with texture. It makes for the music with just 2 intimate, and I wonder if these two hadn't played the music for themselves? I still concur with my earlier assessment that these sonatas played here lack the level of flair that this music can sustain. Flair, of course, can be defined in at least two vectors, both the dynamic range, and the variation in tempi. Yet, it must also be noted with the more sprightly of the dance-like passages how in-tune (both tonally and rhythmically) the two players are. And while there are some they got closer than others, I think, on interpretation. The opening to sonata VIII is a tad slow. You listen to Manze and think "Gosh, Andy, why so slow?" But then the glimmer of hope as to their musical judgement is at least somewhat satisfied in Egarr's filigree in the harpsichord. And then when Egarr goes wild, he taps into those octaves in the left hand, and despite the limited range of the harpsichord, it adds a necessary gravitas via the extra bass reinforcement. Taken alone, there is artistry. Taken in comparison, Biber's music still lives well as show music. In the end, Manze's Biber isn't my most treasured. Yet, there's richness to be had once you are familiar with the music and drop the comparisons, and listen alone to what these two gents have to say.