Biber: Mystery Sonatas

Spitalfields Music
Biber: Mystery Sonatas
Aisha Orazbayeva, violin
Hoxton Hall, 8 July 2022

This concert, part of the Spitalfield Music summer festival, featured Biber’s extraordinary Mystery (or Rosary) Sonatas (c1676). Unusually, it was spread over two separately bookable concerts, which were both repeated two days later. Biber’s extraordinary Mystery (or Rosary) Sonatas is a set of 15 Sonatas of varied forms for violin and continuo and a concluding Passacaglia for solo violin. Each Sonata has a title linked to the Mysteries of the Rosary, reflecting a medieval processional practice of 15 meditational focus points in a church. It is thought that Biber’s music was intended for such a meditation. The 15 Sonatas are divided into three groups of five, under the headings of the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries.

Unfortunately, the limited programme note for the event didn’t say anything about the music itself, apart from listing the Sonata titles and individual movements. A special feature of the Sonatas is the use of scordatura tuning for 14 of the 15 Sonatas, a system whereby the four violin strings are tuned in different ways than the normal G-D-A-E tuning, here only used for the first Sonata and the concluding Passacaglia. To aid performance, five violins are normally used to cover the three groups of five Sonatas, each being retuned backstage – here by violinist Mayah Kadish. The musical benefit is that different harmonies can be accommodated as well as changing tone colours, not least from the purity of sound resulting in the different positions of the open strings as opposed to strings stopped by the player’s finger. The challenge for the performer is that the score shows the notes that the fingers should play the fingering as if the instrument were tuned conventionally, but will hear different notes reflecting the altered tuning of each string.

Biber increases the complexity of the scordatura tunings as the Sonatas progress, with brighter tunings for the Joyful Mysteries and darker and more extreme tunings for the Sorrowful Mysteries, culminating in the most intense for Sonata X ‘The Crucifixion’. The tuning for Sonata XI ‘The Resurrection’ uses the most harmonically pure tuning of the strings, but calls for the middle two strings to be crossed over below the bridge and above the neck of the violin, creating two symbolic cross shapes.

The first concert included Sonatas I to VIII (The Crowning of Jesus with Thorns), meaning that the second opened with the most intense of all the Sonatas – those representing The Carrying of the Cross and The Crucifixion. Kazakh violinist Aisha Orazbayeva is billed as being “renowned for her fearless interpretations of contemporary music and radical approach to old repertoire”. This performance was billed as “a new challenge” for her. Reading about her musical background, I was not entirely sure what to expect. Her specialism seems to be in contemporary music and radical than early music, but her knowledge of period technique seemed relatively sound on the basis of this performance which, fortunately was played ‘straight’ rather than ‘radical’. There were elements of her playing that would have slightly raised an eyebrow of a specialist period instrument violinist, not least her bow hold, but the occasional unstylistic portamento, for example, was balanced by some impressive ornamentation of repeats. Such questions do not, of course, detract from the sheer virtuosic ability to actually play the music.

The keyboard continuo playing raised far more questions. It was generally on harpsichord but with some pieces using a chamber organ. Pianist Prach Boondiskulchok doesn’t profess a detailed knowledge of 17th-century continuo playing, and it did rather show. The Biber Sonatas are not easy to accompany, with their wide-ranging melodic lines and complex harmonies. But the general rule in music of this period is that the continuo player’s job is to accompany the soloist and avoid drawing attention away from the solo line. Adding additional melodic lines to Biber’s already complex melodic texture, particularly when played higher than the solo line, doesn’t do the music any favours. The organ continuo was particularly curious, with unusual articulations, arpeggioed chords and overly percussive passages amongst the intrusions. Gavin Kibble joined in for the Glorious Mysteries, his cello bass line adding depth and stability to the keyboard continuo. I was interested in his bow hold, which was the back-of-the-hand style used by gamba players.

An honourable mention must go to the venue. The remarkable Hoxton Hall is a mid-19th-century Music Hall that has been through a range of incarnations (including housing the Girls Guild for Good Life and the Blue Ribbon Gospel Temperance Mission) until its current rebirth as a bass for community arts. The small, lofty interior is a wonderful space for music, albeit with a very high stage that seems intended to favour the limited balcony seats.