Ricordo - Virtuoso in the Making -

Artistic Quality: 10 / Sound Quality: 10

The music of virtuoso violinist/composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber was as popular with musicians in his day as it is in ours, with good reason: it's simply a lot of fun to perform. Listeners however, particularly those unaccustomed to Biber's plethora of stylistic and virtuosic eccentricities (read "sense of humor"), more often than not are strongly divided in their opinion of him. What one may view as negatively excessive, extravagant, and indulgent another may view as affirmatively bold, innovative, and plainly creative. Those new to Biber and whose outlook veers more toward the positive will find much pleasure in his music and should waste no time in investigating his diverse and prolific oeuvre. Those already familiar with Biber also should waste no time in acquiring this extraordinary Linn debut recording by the British ensemble Ricordo that features rarely recorded early works composed during the master's formative years.

Every selection here is more or less indebted to the explorations of Biber's early mentors Schmelzer and Bertali, composers who began to push the limits of violin virtuosity into the realm of the exotic. For instance, the opening Pastorella gratuitously (or "shamelessly", as first violinist Kati Debretzeni puts it in the notes) pays homage to Schmelzer's earlier, already-renowned Pastorella (also included here for comparison). Pastiche aside, what's most intriguing about these early studies is how they anticipate Biber's later, more fully conceived compositions. The sonata in E major features the extravagant runs, dynamic contrasts, and sound effects that would inform his Sonata Representativa in A, and (to greater extent) his notorious Battalia. Though less imaginatively conceived, Biber's sonata in C minor, with it's lovely organ continuo, more than anticipates another of his most renowned and arguably most frequently recorded works, his "Rosary" or "Mystery" sonatas.

While many of the works here are first recordings, performing Biber requires a certain abandon, panache, and plenty of skill to fully justify his ideas. Although Ricordo has plenty of competition from such outstanding ensembles as Romanesca, Musica Antiqua Köln, Concentius Musicus Wien, Ars Antiqua Austria, and Le Concert des Nations, it compares remarkably well. Violinists Debretzeni and Penelope Spencer are particularly fine, deftly extracting every imaginative diabolical, fantastic, and bizarre nuance of Biber's youthful fertile imagination.

Although Linn indicates on the CD that this recording will sound better when played on one of its own CD players, it sounded absolutely outstanding on my modest HDCD-unready Arcam. Debretzeni's thorough notes are informative and entertaining. This is a grand undertaking and a very welcome addition to Biber's already substantial discography. Highly recommended!

01 July 2005