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Biber's 1681 Sonatas by Letzbor & Ars Antiqua

pan classics Peter Holman wrote in a 1999 review of Biber's Mystery Sonatas by Letzbor that he, along with Eduard Melkus, and John Holloway had begun an unfortunate habit of performing Biber's sonatas with a rather 18th-century aesthetic; in short, too many continuo instruments were used when a single organ was perfect. He liked Letzbor's playing, but also had reservations: * the continuo team at times was too loud and too diverse, * Letzbor's bowing at times was too harsh, sounding as if he was using a modern bow, * Letbzbor used too much vibrato, which got into the way of faster notes. That set was one of my first exposures to Gunar Letzbor, one, based on the reading of the recording's notes, was very personal to the virtuoso. Having trained in Goebel's Musica Antiqua, the Biber recording was a kind of debut for Letzbor. Ambitious, for sure. This collection debuted on Pan Classics in 2011, if we believe Amazon's metadata. It suffers the same fate as Letzbor's recorings on Arcana for me, they were recorded at what seems an unusally low volume. Included are the 1681 sontas (1-8) that were from the same collection as those debuted by Andrew Manze and Romanesca on Harmonia Mundi (my first exposure to Biber). Letzbor and his ensemble Ars Antiqua, Austria, include the Sonata representativa in the release linked above. I don't mind so much a rich palette of continuo, and the variety here is nicely conceived; organ and harpsichord are used, along with bowed bass. But Holman's point is worth observing, too; was bowed cello or gamba used with harpsichord in Biber's time? If not, why is it used here? Balance in the recording is off; as with Holman's objection with the Mystery sonatas, the continuo tends to overtake the violin sound. This oddly could have probably been fixed as a recording feature; it doesn't necessarily reflect the true sonic relationship between instruments (noting that I've heard, live, a baroque violin carry its own against a duo of continuo players before). The recording, too, isn't especially detailed, at least when compared to the one by Monica Huggett. Letzbor seems to keep a few moments of drama in his pocket for a bit of outburst and fireworks. I find Huggett's interpretation of some of the same sonatas to be far better, not to mention the fine reading by Anton Steck, another Goebel-mentee. Manze's style has not always sat with me well over time, but his smaller continuo ensemble and a better quality recording, even better this release. Letzbor for me simply doesn't provide enough "direction," through his playing, leaving the presentation bland, instead of phantasic and engaging. I simply am not enthusiastic about this recording.

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