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GRAMOPHONE (09/2015)
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Challenge Classics

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Reviewer: Lindsay Kemp


The Sonatae tam aris quam aulis servientes were Biber’s first published works, issued in 1676 in Salzburg, where the 32-year-old composer had relatively recently established himself as one of the leading musicians at the court of the Prince-Archbishop. One can well imagine them making a strong impression; these 12 ensemble sonatas in five, seven or eight parts ‘fit for table or altar’ (ie for sacred or secular use) are boisterous and confident, grafting free-flying solo writing for violins and/or trumpets on to a solidly grounded core of up to three violas and bass. The sonatas range from five to seven minutes in length and are in the singlemovement but multi-sectional style of the stylus phantasticus, a manner in which Biber was not only a master but also a personality bursting with vivid and surprising ideas. Anyone familiar with his violin sonatas will smile with recognition at his extrovert bursts of fancy, battlefield cameos, dance-rhythm episodes and distinctive cadences. Add to that the polyphonic probings, rhetorical dialogues and chases made possible by the ensemble texture, and Biber’s livewire presence begins to feel very close indeed.


This is very much home ground for Ars Antiqua Austria and violinist-director Gunar Letzbor, who launch themselves into the music with enthusiasm. Their string sound courses with intensity and bold projection to a degree that, while managing to maintain transparency, springiness and a certain quickness of thought, runs the risk of becoming overbearing in its rarely relenting ebullience. Compared to this, their most recent competitors, the Rare Fruits Council, are smoother, more luxurious and also likely to ease off more in the tenderer passages, while further back the Purcell Quartet are more refined and loving still. You don’t have to listen to all the sonatas at once, of course, though in truth even on repeated listenings the sheer robust joy and commitment of Ars Antiqua’s performances are hard to resist.


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