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Rick Anderson
Baker & Taylor CD Hotlist, January 2011

This is a thoroughly lovely account of one of the early baroque period’s more important large-scale works, an example of “table music” (i.e., music intended to accompany a banquet or other social gathering). It predates Telemann’s more celebrated Tafelmusik suite by some 60 years, yet is arguably more creative in its use of unexpected harmonies and rhythms. For this recording, the Chicago-based period-instrument ensemble Baroque Band has made the unusual choice of performing with multiple instruments per part, which adds a pleasant sense of fullness to the ensemble sound. Very nice indeed.

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, December 2010

Hindemith once called Biber “the most important Baroque composer before Bach.” Even with such a lofty declaration, Biber’s music isn’t heard much today. But his music was highly regarded during the 1600s, where he rubbed noses with royalty as a court musician. Baroque Band, a Baroque ensemble hailing from Chicago, performs two works by Biber—Mensa Sonora and Battalia—with sprite and elegance on its newest Cedille release, giving life to important Baroque works often overlooked.

Lance Hulme
Early Music America, December 2010

That Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644–1704) has not remained a household name on the level of other Baroque luminaries is an injustice to one of the most talented and versatile composers of that era. It may be that this relative obscurity is due, like Corelli’s, to his belonging to the middle Baroque, a time before the full maturity of the compositional techniques that mark the period and remain its legacy. In any case, the Salzburg-based Bohemian was reportedly the greatest violinist of his time, particularly known for the many virtuoso violin works, such as the Mystery Sonatas and Harmonia artificiosa-ariosa, that employ scordatura (retuning the strings to allow greater harmonic and contrapuntal flexibility). His phenomenal output ranges from the profundity of the Missa Salisburgensis to the humor, flash, and panache of the Battalia heard on this CD.

Andrew Manze’s 1995 Gramophone award-winning release, Biber, Violin Sonatas, helped to redress the gap in public awareness of Biber’s music. This CD from the Chicago-based Baroque Band adds to his justifiably growing reputation. The six Mensa sonora that comprise the first part of the CD are “sonorous table” partitas written for Biber’s patron the Archbishop of Salzburg and were intended to accompany formal dining. Unlike the more virtuosic solo sonatas, these partitas do not use scordatura, instead concentrating on melodic development and harmonic and formal ingenuity. The Baroque Band provides a truly musical and precise musical interpretation, making me regret I am not able to experience their Chicago concerts. The ensemble uses multiple performers on each part, which creates an impression of grandeur not heard in other recordings.

Each Mensa sonora has its individual appeal. Collectively they are delightful for the connoisseur, but I do wonder whether they are a little too much the same to appeal as a set to the casual listener. In any case, the final selection is a perfect antidote. The well-known Battalia is a battle piece typical of the period but extraordinary in tis use of extreme dissonances and scraps of folksong to represent the battle between the European West and Turkish East. I played Battalia for my first year music theory students. They were enthralled. I have heard a number of recordings of this raucous, splashy, and yes, perhaps a little trashy, work, but the Baroque Band’s performance has become my favorite.

Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice, December 2010

Biber’s Mensa Sonora consists of 6 orchestral suites (900000 116). Considering that it was published in 1680, its materials are very inventive for Baroque music, even if their working out is not as imaginative. The disc also contains Battalia for strings, a 9-minute piece that is reminiscent of conservative Soviet music that allowed any horrible sound if it was supposed to represent an atom bomb. It begins with a dissonance that is quite impossible for the time, representing “battle.” Unfortunately, it calms down almost immediately. Excellent performances by the Baroque Band, directed by Garry Clarke.

William Zagorski
Fanfare, November 2010

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644–1704) is one of the most blatantly enigmatic composers of the German Baroque, a virtuoso violinist and one of the last masters of scordatura. His Mystery Sonatas, in my less than humble opinion, represent a violinistic achievement that had to wait for Bach’s sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin to find their equal in sheer violinistic resourcefulness and brilliance. His Mensa Sonora of 1680 is table music in the later tradition of Telemann; that is to say, it is designed as wallpaper music. Given that, its quirkiness and invention are arresting, probably much to Biber’s dismay. This is, despite Biber’s more than probable protest, significant music, and it is given beautifully intoned and gutsy performances here. The term “quirky” applies in droves to Battalia from 1673, wherein Biber pulls out all the stops, employing such augmented techniques as banging on the violin body with the bow, and extended passages of purposefully out-of-tune playing. The piece is full of both tongue-in-cheek attitude and instrumental virtuosity. The result is that Biber is truly mad, making him a compellingly kindred spirit to yours truly. But then, keep in mind that he wrote some of the most moving liturgical music of his period.

Bertil van Boer
Fanfare, September 2010

If the history of instrumental music in the Baroque period around 1680 is read, chances are that the antipodes of Arcangelo Corelli in Italy would be Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber in Austria. Indeed, as Kapellmeister to the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, he was an important musical figure in the Holy Roman Empire, enough so that he was knighted in 1690. The corpus of his music is extensive, and it seems to have been widely imitated and disseminated throughout the realm. Even today, violinists love to perform the various sonatas as they offer challenges and are far more virtuoso than the Italians of the same age (which, of course, would change with the coming of Vivaldi and his cohorts).

This disc offers works that have been recorded many times before, since they have been accessible for years to early-music groups. The Mensa Sonora, which the writer of the notes of this disc, the director of the new Chicago Baroque Band Garry Clarke, translates rather oddly (although literally) as “sounding table” (I think it better to say “Musical Feast” or “Musical Banquet,” which is more idiomatic here), is a set of six miniature suites from five to seven movements apiece that was meant, according to Biber’s subtitle, to mean “Instrumental Table Music with Fresh-sounding Violin Sonorities.” It is obvious from this and from his promise not to include “bizarre dishes” that it was meant to accompany a large elaborate banquet at the Archbishop’s palace (and of course elsewhere in the realm). All of the individual movements are short and succinct (only two of them more than three minutes long), and comprise sets of various dances alternating tempos in true suite fashion. Like Telemann later, Biber includes suggestive bits, such as the Trezza or Canario, both unusual dance forms, and he concludes each of the suites, labeled “Pars” or “Parts,” with an anomalous movement that seems to foreshadow the next to be performed. The exception is the last, which begins with a slow introduction and ends abruptly and without resolution, a comic turn that will delight and puzzle listeners. To me, it seems obvious that this was not, as the notes say, background music to dinner; all in all, the entire thing lasts under 50 minutes, so a slow, lavish banquet would have been more like a quick lunch if this were to occur. I would suggest that these were performed before the courses were served, with each suite heralding the soup to dessert: thus, no “exotic dishes” but a long, leisurely repast. The second work is the oft-performed Battalia, which adheres to the penchant in Salzburg for comic scenes. In this case, drunken soldiers revel in off-key and bitonal carousing in the second movement, while the pompous Mars (meaning the god of war, not March, as the notes misstate) dragoons the musketeers to battle with decisive steps and drumming contrabasses. The short battle features the crack of col legno bows struck on the wood imitating musket fire, and the final lament is more pitiful than tragic; here one pictures slightly wounded soldiers playing it up for sympathy from the fairer sex and extensive libations to soothe their wounds. It is all great fun, and no serious intent can be found in this pairing.

The new Chicago-based Baroque Band performs these as larger ensembles than other recordings, such as Reinhard Goebel’s rendition with Musica Antiqua Köln on Teldec and Archiv, or the latest by Jordi Savall with the Capella Reial on Alia Vox. This is probably more accurate and gives the music a depth that one-on-a-part recordings often fail to do. Indeed, the Mensa Sonora is almost downright Handelian, with the ensemble giving it a nice rich texture. I truly appreciate this, as it often brings out some of the lines better...and it certainly is not without humor or wit. So, go ahead and enjoy.

Edith Eisler
Strings Magazine, June 2010

The players are excellent. Their tone, tuned to a low A, though unvibrated, is warm and rich. They bring out the spirit of the dances by changing inflection, articulation, and expression with the bow.

John von Rhein
Chicago Tribune, March 2010

CD of the week

German composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber was one of the great originals of the second half of the 17th century. The six instrumental suites (or “pars”) collectively titled “Mensa Sonora” (“Musical Table”) far surpass in quality of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic invention their practical function as background music for lavish dinners at the Salzburg archbishop’s court. Chicago’s period instruments ensemble Baroque Band, in its debut recording, brings out their quirkiness and charm with marvelous panache.

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