Monday 26 February 2024

BIBER'S MYSTERY SONATAS / Red Dot Baroque / Review

Red Dot Baroque
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Friday (23 February 2023)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 27 April 2024 with the title "Red Dot Baroque illuminates with Biber's Mystery Sonatas".

Trust Red Dot Baroque (RDB), Singapore’s only dedicated period instrument ensemble, to continue illuminating listeners about Baroque music. Beyond the familiar J.S.Bach, Handel and Vivaldi, RDB has now unveiled the Mystery Sonatas of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704). 

Born in Bohemia, Biber was a virtuoso violinist who became the court composer of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, a position famously occupied decades later by the Mozarts, Wolfgang Amadeus and his father Leopold. 

Biber’s most famous work was Battalia, a riotous reflection of the Thirty Years War, but his Mystery Sonatas (or Rosary Sonatas) of 1676 come close. These comprise sixteen works inspired by events in the lives of Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary. The Mysteries of the Rosary include five Joyful Mysteries, five Sorrowful Mysteries, five Glorious Mysteries, before closing with a Passacaglia

This evening, ten sonatas were performed by six members of RDB and ten Conservatory students. None of the sonatas conformed to the “sonata form”, which came much later, instead deriving from the Italian word “sonare” which means to “sound out”. The short works were more like fantasies and dances which reveled on the art of improvisation. 

The opening piece, The Annunciation, performed by Alan Choo (baroque violin), Leslie Tan (baroque cello) and Gerald Lim (harpsichord), served as a prime example. 

Flashy flourishes from Choo immediately alerted one to the level of virtuosity involved, an attention-grabbing introduction leading to a set of variations, considered inventive for their time. While the sonatas were meant for deep reflection and affirmation of one’s faith, the creative spirit in Biber could not but help turn these into true showpieces. 

Preceding each piece was a short narration by Choo, reading from the Gospels. The ensuing sonatas became an exercise for six talented violin students in adjusting to the different tunings (called scordatura), thus rendering varying shades of colour and emotion to each piece. 

The Finding of Jesus in the Temple (in A major), played by Syu Cheng-yi, was a gleeful series of dances, contrasted by The Agony in the Garden (C minor), performed by Xu Zhuorui, a lament of heartrending pathos. The Crucifixion (G minor) was suitably dramatic and violent with RDB’s Placida Ho providing requisite fireworks in its variations. 

A departure from the violin-cello-harpsichord combo was The Assumption of Mary (D major), which saw Brenda Koh’s violin accompanied by Tan’s cello, Mervyn Lee on baroque guitar and Vanessa Irwanto on harp. The transformation was a stark one, the earlier formalities turning into a joyous folkdance with seemingly happy-go-lucky vibes. 

It was left to Choo, alone on violin, to emphatically complete the set with the Passacaglia in G minor (The Guardian Angel). Built upon just four descending notes (G-F-E flat-D), a mighty edifice was erected with its series of short variations, looking forward to J.S.Bach’s famous Chaconne composed almost forty years later. 

One may surmise that without Biber, there might have been no Bach.

All the performers:
RDB and Conservatory students

No comments: