Biber: Rosary Sonatas

Biber: Rosary Sonatas
Daniel Pioro, violin, James McVinnie, organ, harpsichord
Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer & Purcell Room
Sunday 22 January 2023

Described as “a day-long deep dive into the world of Biber’s virtuosic Rosary Sonatas, with performances and talks stretching from sunrise to sunset”, this event divided the three sections of Biber’s Rosary (or Mystery) Sonatas into separate concerts, the first starting at 8 in the morning, one at midday, and then at 4 in the afternoon. The three concerts were interspersed with two pairs of “Deep Dive” talks – “deep dive” being the phrase of the moment as far as the Southbank is concerned, with more references in the January programme booklet, although it is a new one to me. This event seems to be part of the Southbank’s process of post-Covid rethinking, trying to rebuild audiences and attract younger people.

The idea of this event was admirable, if brave, not least for attracting an audience to a concert that started at 8 on a frosty Sunday morning. Our broken train system prevented me from getting there until just before the end of the first concert, but I heard the other two and all the deep dives. I was very impressed at how many people had made it to the 8am concert in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. This is not mainstream music for the general music-loving public, although the Biber Rosary Sonatas are well-known to early music fans. The other two concerts were also well attended although the deep dives attracted far fewer. The midday concert was in the Purcell Room, a very much better choice of venue than the wide and noisy expanse of the Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer, although it would have lacked the sight of the sun rising and setting over the Thames.

Social media hackles had already been raised by the advert for the event, which highlighted the names of the two performers and the title of the piece, but did not mention the composer’s name until much further down. There was a hint of a similar approach during the performances, with much of the focus being on the violinist Daniel Pioro, currently a Southbank Artist in Residence. He describes himself as “an ardent advocate for new and experimental music” who “actively promotes new music and is interested in finding new ways of listening to and creating sound”. Given that, his excursion into the world of early music was a formidable challenge, not least in taking on one of the most complex pieces of 17th-century violin music.

Biber (or to give him his full name – Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber von Bibern) was born in Bohemia. He was a virtuoso violinist, and his compositions reveal the extent of his performing talents. In his set of 15 Rosary Sonatas he makes use of scordatura tuning, when in all but the first Sonata, the violin strings are tuned to different notes to the usual G-D-A-E tuning. At the extreme, all four strings are tuned within a single octave. The lower G string has the largest pitch shift, up a fourth to C. The other strings move with a third of their usual pitch. This altering of the tension of the strings has a range of effects, notably on the changing tone colours from different string tensions, and the purity of sound from the different positions of the open strings.

The main challenge for the performer is that the score shows the notes that would be heard if the instrument were tuned conventionally but, because of the different tuning of the strings, they will hear different notes that reflect the altered tuning of each string. Biber increases the complexity of the scordatura tunings as the Sonatas progress, with brighter tunings for the five Joyful Mysteries and darker and more extreme tunings for the five 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 (with octaves in G and D), 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. It is a shame that we didn’t see a close-up of what this actually looked like during any of the talks – it is not easy to spot in performance.

These pieces are usually performed with at least five separate violins, each being retuned and settled into their new tuning by an off-stage assistant as the other Sonatas are played. But Daniel Pioro chose to use just one violin and to make the retuning (and, in his case, the re-stringing) part of the performance: a lengthy and not visually attractive process. The choice of retuning a single violin resulted, almost inevitably, in several retuning pauses during the performances. I have never seen a violinist change strings in the Rosary Sonatas, and I wonder if that missed the aural effect of tightening or loosening the tension of a string. Each retuning was followed by a lengthy improvisatory sequence, in a style that was worlds away from Biber’s sound world. For me, both activities disturbed the overall mood and sequence of Biber’s Sonatas. Rather than the 45/50 minutes that each of the three sections would usually take, these three concerts each lasted around 75 minutes.

While I can admire the virtuosity of anybody actually playing this monumental work, I did yearn for more of the sensitivity, tuning accuracy and delicacy of tone of an experienced early music violinist playing on a period violin setup in period style and using an appropriate period bow. There are several online recordings by the likes of Rachel Podger, Andrew Manze and Pavlo Beznosiuk, and others to demonstrate the difference. And it is enormous – the lighter weight of a baroque bow combined with a right hand positioned further up the bow means that the control over the tone is far greater than a modern bow and bow hold. On this modern violin bow, most of the notes were of a similar volume, and most started and finished with the same rather strident transient, rather than the subtle easing into a note that a period bow can produce. The slightly metallic ring of meta, rather than gut, strings is also a world away from the gentle burr of gut strings.

James McVinnie was open about his lack of early music experience, although his organ and harpsichord playing certainly did not reveal that. It is part of an organist’s training to study continuo playing, and James McVinnie’s realisations of the single bass line of music was impressive, particularly on the attractive chamber organ that was used for most of the Sonatas. A slight quibble would be that the organ was tuned in a very mild unequal temperament, was at modern pitch (a semitone above the pitch that Biber would have known), and had the distinctive English sound of a Stopped Diapason rather than the flutier continental Gedackt. It would be ideally suited to English viol consort music, which so often has the sound of a Germanic Gedackt, if there is an organ at all.

The Deep Dive sessions covered The Music (from Dr Elisabeth Giselbrecht), The History (a rather intense summary from Dr William O’Reilly), an In Conversation session with James McVinnie, and a look at real Rosaries from the point of view of an Anglo-Catholic (Rev Sarah Lenton).

The adventurous end to the day-long experience was hearing the final movement of the Rosary Sonatas, the famous solo violin Passacaglia, performed outdoors in a temperature approaching zero from a pulpit-like staircase onto the roof of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Interesting as this was as a venue, I think that the Passacaglia is an essential element of the Rosary Sonatas, bringing the extensive sequence to a satisfactory conclusion. Separating it from the Sonatas rather reduced that effect.

Despite my own reservations, which come from a particular focus on early music and performance practice, this was an adventurous and ambitious venture. But I do hope that the Southbank powers that be will soon programme a performance by an established period violinist, and invite everybody who booked for this day-long event.