I wager that Mystery Sonatas were Biber's high point as a composer. Since the Biber revival beginning in the 1990s by the likes of Andrew Manze and his Romanesca brought this composer to our collective conscience, we've been exploring more of the composer's and virtuoso's output. Among his ensemble pieces for a small set of strings, I really like his Mensa Sonora, or "Table Music." Less well-known, however, is his collection of "Fiddler's Music in both Sacred- and Dance- Styles," or in the Latin, the Fidicinium Sacro-Profanum).
This set of twelve sonatas arranged in collections of diverse moods, complete with dance elements, has had play by at least two groups. And it's been a shame that I have never reviewed them. The wait is over.
The first to come on the scene was the Purcell Quartet's recording on Chandos Chaconne (1997). Featuring Catherine Mackintosh on first violin, the ensemble has been fairly religious about releasing a lot of Biber's works. Their 2-CD set acted as a type of catch-all, adding additional pieces to the program to both fill-out the CDs but also give us a better idea of Biber as an ensemble composer. These extra curiosities may even prove to be tastier items to the listener, as they include his Batallia Suite, a vocal setting of Laeataus Sum, the Nightwatchman's Call, a set of dances, and the final passcaglia from the Mystery Sonatas.
More recently released, David Plantier directs the Les Plaisirs du Parnasse with the same collection, minus the additional Biber smorgasbord. Plantier's direction allows the ensemble to fit all 12 sonatas on one disc.
In terms of sound, the Purcell Quartet has a thinner sound, that's brighter too. The harpsichord stands-out well in the recording, although altogether the texture sounds top-heavy. The bass viol in the continuo group can be heard attacking the notes, but the recording fails to convey a richness or fullness to this ensemble's sound. Alone it sounds okay, but once listening to Les Plaisirs, their sound is anemic. By contrast, Plantier's ensemble seems better-balanced, albeit with a darkness to their sound. The violins, too, sound less thin, and the recorded sound is more immediate. I also detect a more athletic, if not "male" approach to the style they've lavished on this music. We might say that their point of view is one that's been fortified with rich, dark coffee. The presence of caffeine and strong flavor comes across in their playing. Plantier also uses a different continuo group, employing organ and plucked bass lute.
The thing is, the Plantier version reminded me at times of the delicious textures and harmonies that I'd grown fond of under Goebel in their recording of Mensa Sonora. Before Plantier's recording came along, I hadn't thought terribly much of this collection by Biber.
On one hand, the Purcell version does offer some value in the smorgasbord angle mentioned earlier. The playing is not poorly done, but it lacks the sonic quality brought about in the later recording by Plantier. As the two ensembles go, however, the one directed by David Plantier has more than just a better recorded-sound. His ensemble has a stronger direction of where the music is going, bringing us, in turn, somewhat more drama and emotional satisfaction.
As I think about this music, it's far less extrovert or showy as Biber's aforementioned Mystery Sonatas (they, of course, being rich in virtuosity), or even his other ensemble collections. But this collection does have its moments of charm. But I couldn't help but think the real joy in this collection if there for the performers. Whomever first heard this music, it was more than likely destined for the chamber and an intimate audience. It's lack of overt drama makes me think it would have produced a fine sonorous curtain for other courtly activities. I somehow picture the musicians all facing one another, challenging one another with each motivic and tempo change to come within each sonata. Many of the sections get repeated, alternating slow-fast before another episode pair. Biber also introduces sections with imitative elements, between two lines (the two violins) but also between larger groups (violins vs. violas). This counterpoint is interesting, at least to me, because Biber allows the voices among one of these two pairs to cross, i.e., the second violin may cross-over with higher notes than the first violin. With all the repeats called for, Plaisirs du Parnasse do take some opportunities for extra ornamentation on the repeats, but I almost wished for a little more during the slower movements. I also believe these are best enjoyed, one at a time; I am not convinced the "collection" was meant to be listened to as a set. I get to enjoy both recordings, and comparing versions is always fun. But if I were to choose just one, my money would be on the Plaisirs du Parnasse recording on Zig-Zag Territoires.