Heinrich Franz von Biber, the Battle, the Bethel, and the Ball (works for strings and voice). ACRONYM. Olde Focus Recordings, FCR913, (p) 2018; Time: 69:00; Rating: (5/5).
This may well be my favorite album released over the past year. My initial audition was from start to finish and I was overwhelmed both by the extreme musicality, the recorded sound, and the rhythmic drive.
Anachronistic Cooperative Realizing Obscure Nuanced Yesteryear’s Masterpieces is an American early-music ensemble whose latest release features the music by, and attributed to Biber. Seven works in all are presented, including the Sonata Jucunda á 5 and the Battalia. This is the first release I have auditioned by the ensemble. Molly Quinn, soprano, and Jesse Blumberg, baritone, joins the ensemble as outstanding vocalists. Solo parts are realized by six different instrumentalists on violin and viola da gamba (Loren Ludwig). The recorded sound is unlike so many discs of this repertoire; no notes on the recording setup are made. The recording is quite clear, without being too close. What came across in listening on loudspeakers, especially, was the profound bass from the ensemble. The richness this added to the ensemble’s sound was less perceptible using headphones. I needed to get this out of the way before talking about the music: the album’s engineering team at Oktaven Audio nailed it. What a gorgeous sound!
The vocal style employed here works for me without approaching an “operatic” style which too frequently makes its way into early music performances. I also was tickled to hear different members take on the instrumental solos for a variety of color and style. The basso continuo team does an excellent job. Everyone employed approaches their role with an appropriate level of drama and rhetorical presence; this style is never overdone.
Whether the Sonatina is by Biber or by Augustinus Kertzinger is not important to me, it was a work I hadn’t heard, featuring the gamba through four dances and an opening sonata movement. I had read that Biber was foremost a gambist, before a violinist. The style of writing and also of the execution is so different from what we might expect to hear from, say, a French composer such as Couperin or Marais. It’s not surprising to learn it was also transcribed for violin, recalling a much more violin-like style.
The 1705 Ciacona isn’t assuredly by Biber, but the group takes over seventeen minutes to present a piece that I thought was new to me. The violin playing by Adriane Post, supported by the rhythmic drive of her colleagues, approaches almost saucy proportions by the piece’s end. ACRONYM will make your foot start tapping with this one. My research reveals, however, I do own a version of this piece, performed with far less fanfare by Anton Steck in his 2005 album Violin Sonatas from the Kremsier Archive with Lee Santana and Christian Rieger (CPO). Steck is an outstanding violinist and was with good company; it’s the imagination and perhaps dramatic vision of ACRONYM that sets this piece in new light for me.
Another new piece for me was the solo violin rendition of Hic est Panis for with organ. Gunar Letzbor has recorded this piece quite satisfactorily; but with ACRONYM the bass is filled out with more instruments. And while I might give props to Letzbor’s violin in comparison, overall the ACRONYM version is superior, much in part because of the better singing.
The album closes with one of Biber’s most popular pieces, the Battalia, which calls for special string effects and the simulation of battle, drunkenness, and more. ACRONYM takes the slower parts very slow, but the choices made make sense. They do a very good job with tone painting. I felt in part they may have been influenced by Goebel’s recording on DG Archiv, but they are no mere copycats: whatever inspiration Musica Antiqua Köln may or may not have given them, they add enough interesting interpretational gifts of their own to make this rendition a clear favorite from my collection.
This album, in summary, combines so many great attributes that come together to make a winning recital: pieces of high quality that are both familiar and new; a period approach with imagination and creativity; and sheer excellence when it comes to the recorded sound. Combine all of that with a beautiful CD booklet featuring art by Bosch, and I am not sure how you could do much better! (Hey, I’m biased, maybe, as a fan of Biber, but don’t think I let that influence my subjectivity!)