The chief contrasts within the work lie in Biber's varying scheme of triple and duple metre which he deploys with skill and to great effect. The ethereal clarity of the voices of the Gabrieli Consort are wonderfully suited to this repertoire and there are many instances of almost mesmerising beauty . . . the excellence of the Gabrieli Consort voices and instrumentalists is such that this new version leap-frogs over its illustrious predecessors . . . yet over-all this new version under Paul McCreesh's direction offers greater satisfaction.
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BBC Music Magazine (London) / 01. January 2005
Wonderfully blended string tone and, in the Requiem, an ethereally silver sound. The chorus is superb, singing with apt weight yet moving with agility . . . This disc provides excellent advocacy for two of Biber's stellar choral works.
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Early Music America / 01. January 2005
McCreesh and his musicians reinforce the expression of joy and grief in this programme . . . much to Biber's advantage.
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Classic FM (London) / 01. February 2005
Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli Consort are the masters of baroque ceremony.
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What's On / 01. February 2005
McCreesh makes the best possible case for the Requiem . . . impeccably shaped performances.
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Gramophone (London) / 01. February 2005
Auf beiden Stilebenen agieren die Gabrieli Consort & Players mit schon fast schlafwandlerischer Sicherheit, was aber in keiner Weise heißt, dass die Interpretationen entsprechend schläfrig daherkämen, sondern ganz im Gegenteil: Wache Lust am musikalischen Ausdruck gibt hier den Ton an!
On both stylistic levels the Gabrieli Consort & Players perform with almost somnambulistic surefootedness, which, however, is not to say that there is anything sleepy about the interpretations - quite the opposite: alert delight in musical expression is the order of the day here!
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Musik & Theater (Zurich) / 01. December 2004
Interpretatorisch besticht einmal mehr das exzellente Niveau der englischen Musiker . . . in konzeptioneller, technischer, gestalterischer und klanglicher Hinsicht die beste Aufnahme.
The exalted interpretive standards of the English musicians impress once again . . . the best recording in conception and execution as well as technically and in sound quality.
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Fono Forum (Euskirchen) / 01. January 2005
Unter Paul McCreesh werden die melodischen Linien mit expressiver Variabilität gestaltet. Bestimmte Textstellen werden besonders ausgekostet.
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Toccata - Alte Musik Aktuell (Regensburg) / 01. May 2005
. . . une partie de son catalogue . . . pas moins riche ni inspirée . . . On découvre ici . . . vrais bijoux : ainsi va-t-il du « Peccator et consolator » d¿Abraham Megerle, émouvant duo de sopranos . . . joliment mis en espace ; ou encore du miraculeux « Media vita in morte sumus » de Lassus qui conclut l¿office avec pudeur et recueillement.
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Classica - Repertoire (Paris) / 01. April 2005
MEDIA VITA IN MORTE SUMUS
“In the midst of life we are in death”: the opening line of this eighth-century antiphon encapsulates the Christian belief in the transience of mortal life. During the plague epidemics of the Middle Ages and at times of wars and natural disasters, it acquired a terrible topicality, as is clear from images of the Dance of Death in which princes and paupers, young and old are seen taking part in a danse macabre with no distinction as to age or status. But no age celebrated the notion of “memento mori” as impressively as the Baroque. In the wake of the Thirty Years War, Biber’s contemporaries rediscovered their love of life and luxury while at the same time taking an intense interest in death: writings and paintings stressed the transience of all earthly concerns; books on the art of dying became best-sellers; and burials, which were intended to underscore the deceased’s social standing, were often planned during the person’s lifetime. Although it may seem as though emotions played no part here, impressions are in fact misleading. According to the arbiters of Baroque taste, feelings should be shown only to one’s closest friends, but in the eyes of the outside world one should maintain a sense of composure. The higher one’s social standing, the less socially acceptable it was to indulge in spontaneous expressions of joy or grief.
Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber was familiar with both these worlds of courtly splendour and closeness to death. He was born in the Bohemian town of Wartenberg (now Stráz pod Ralskem) in 1644 and after appointments in Graz and Kremsier (Kromeríz¡) arrived in Salzburg in 1670. As a virtuoso on the violin he enjoyed such a high standing that on several occasions he was invited to perform for Emperor Leopold I and in 1690 was raised to the ranks of the aristocracy. In the archbishopric of Salzburg, which was ruled by luxury-loving clerics, his career advanced quickly: by 1678 he had been appointed deputy Kapellmeister and by 1684 he was court Kapellmeister. The esteem in which he was held is clear not only from his handsome salary but also from his appointment in 1692 as lord high steward, the highest secular title that a Salzburg archbishop could confer. Biber evidently received it in token of his monumental contribution to music for the town’s cathedral. In the rivalry between the courts of the period, works such as his fifty-three-part Missa Salisburgensis (long ascribed to Orazio Benevoli) did much to enhance (both the zeal of the counter-reformation Catholicism as well as) the prestige and reputation of Salzburg’s rulers as patrons of the arts. The fact that a music lover such as Archbishop Max Gandolf von Kuenburg, who was elected in 1668, was fanatical in his persecution of witches, executing 133 adults and children and driving thousands of Protestant “heretics” into abject exile is generally overlooked nowadays, such is the magnificent artistic legacy that he left behind him in Salzburg. It is not known whether the fate of these people affected Biber personally: he was undoubtedly more deeply afflicted by the premature deaths of no fewer than seven of his eleven children.
The present CD offers listeners a chance to compare and contrast(s) the Requiem in F minor and the Mass in B flat major for six voices and continuo. In terms of its compositional technique and sonorities, the Mass creates a backward-looking impression with its predominantly polyphonic and often fugal part-writing reminiscent of old school Roman Catholic church music. Typical of Biber’s style is the frequent use of ostinato motifs in the continuo. In a number of passages, notably at the start of the Gloria, this results in an effect that recalls the pealing of bells. The individual movements are linked together by manifold motivic relationships.
Biber’s mass setting is interspersed with other music to form a quasi liturgical sequence. Georg Muffat was court organist in Salzburg from 1678 to 1690. (Like Biber, he died in 1704.) The violin virtuoso and Kapellmeister at the imperial court, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, is believed to have been Biber’s teacher. His sonatas were explicitly intended to be performed both in church and in a secular context. By contrast, Abraham Megerle, who was a member of the priesthood and Kapellmeister at Salzburg Cathedral from 1640 to 1651, placed his work as a composer and writer in the exclusive service of the counter-reformation.
In Biber’s day a court orchestra’s library would also have included works by Orlando di Lasso, one of the last exponents of stil antico vocal polyphony. His style was imitated by succeeding generations, and inasmuch as no other 16th-century composer brought out so many printed editions, his works remained part of the standard repertory of church singers throughout Europe for many years to come.
We do not know for which occasion Biber wrote his Requiem in F minor. The list of voices and instruments suggests that it was performed in Salzburg Cathedral with its four organ galleries on each of the pillars supporting the dome. Biber knew how to accommodate the cathedral’s acoustics, employing expressive modern style solo vocal writing, a warm-toned six part string ensemble and choral voices, supported by trombones, to produce a full-bodied sound that invests the work with a character both dignified and consoling. There is a striking absence of dramatic effects: only in the “Dies irae” does Biber use a tremulous quaver motif to suggest the trembling of the sinners before their supreme judge (“Quantus tremor est futurus”), but Biber’s music is often richly expressive in harmony and melody, and extremely subtle in his portrayal of the text. Listeners familiar with later settings of the Requiem text may be surprised by this, but a late 17th-century archiepiscopal Mass for the Dead was not supposed to leave its congregation emotionally shaken, being intended, rather, to impress them as an edifying synthesis of the arts. The music made its effect in combination with the liturgical action and the church decorations: the walls and floor were covered with black cloth, temple-like memorials were erected and precious candle stands set up. For Biber’s contemporaries, who loved the theatre as no other generation did, this was the final act in life’s drama. We know nothing about Biber’s own requiem. He died during the night of 3/4 May 1704 and was buried in the cemetery of St Peter’s, Salzburg’s collegiate church.
(Translation: Stewart Spencer)
Notes on stringing - Performance notes
Biber's Mass and Requiem were almost certainly written for very different institutions. The Mass, with its almost bucolic organ continuo, seems destined not for a major cathedral but for one of the smaller parish churches, indeed the main source for this work is one of the convents in Austria. Perhaps the director of music, a man with known Salzburg connections, commissioned Biber for a mass setting for a patronal feast? We have chosen to sing this piece with doubled soprano parts and single male voices, with an additional bass violin joining the organ continuo line. In contrast, the Requiem has clear links with Salzburg Cathedral, and although written for reasonably modest forces, the list of parts (now, maddeningly, lost in recent years) imply some sort of polychorality. To the basic ensemble of five solo voices and six part strings and organ we have added ripieno forces of ten singers, trombones and an additional organ.
The string ensemble in this recording is worthy of comment. It has long been known by scholars that the strings used by most period-instrument ensembles are far from historically accurate. More recently the Gabrieli Players have been experimenting with authentic 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century stringing practices. In this recording (and indeed in the recent recording of Spanish Music for the Duke of Lerma) the string band uses all-gut stringing in equal tension (in contrast to the modern system of graded tension). It has proved richly rewarding to work with instruments set up in this way, especially when playing music so obviously written in a consort style, where each part has an equal role. The blend and balance are greatly improved, and the quality of sound, often richer and almost 'nutty', encourages the bow towards a more direct articulation, perfect for the rhetorical demands of the music.
In Biber's F minor Requiem we did however come across an interesting anomaly: the 1st violin and 1st viola parts require frequent excursions to 3rd position on the top string, which is most unusual in string consort writing in this period (even if it is found in Biber's more virtuosic solo violin music). Such position changes seem to compromise the consort blend unnecessarily, as all the other instruments are playing in the heart of their ranges. Speculation on the pragmatic nature of 17th century musicians, Biber's known fondness for "scordatura" tunings, and the possibilities of equal-tension stringing, we adopted a radical solution: the 1st violin and 1st viola were restrung as "piccolo" instruments, tuned a minor third higher. The violin is therefore tuned Bflat, F, C, G, and the viola Eflat, Bflat, F, C. This violin tuning is of course well known; that of the viola to our knowledge unheard of, but nonetheless entirely logical, and we believe very effective. In this way every part sits perfectly in the range of each instrument, and the consort is brought into an elegant proportion. Moreover, such tunings create a natural sonority in the relatively rare key of F minor. As a solution it seemed not only effective but also in keeping with the spirit of 17th century musicianship. Whether this is how Biber's string band performed we are unlikely ever to know, but perhaps it will also spark debate and experiment!