Heinrich Biber's Rosary Sonatas for violin are also known as the Mystery Sonatas, and that name, though it refers to the so-called Mysteries of the Rosary (episodes in the life of Christ), is appropriate in another way as well: the music is surrounded by mysteries. When and why the sonatas were written are two important ones, as is how even the often-extreme Biber happened to come up with such an utterly original idea and execute it so lavishly. The biggest mystery, pertaining to the violin tunings, has been partially solved, but it's still an open question as to how many different violins were used. German Baroque violinist Daniel Sepec accepts the general idea, taken to its extreme by violinist Andrew Manze with his single violin, that the sonatas are supposed to differ radically in timbre, with the more painful moments in the Passion story, most of all the crucifixion (track 10), stripping the instrument of its beautiful tone and turning it into an agonized cry. However, the supposition that Biber performed the work on one violin requires you to believe that he stopped and retuned after each sonata -- possible, but unlikely. Sepec uses three Jakob Steiner violins from the late 17th century; they seem related in tone but slightly different, and they work beautifully. The continuo accompaniment consists of viola da gamba, lute or theorbo, and keyboard, and the players, who include American-German lutenist Lee Santana, manage the art of filling out the harmony without getting in the way of the surpassingly weird violin line. The best feature of the release, for CD buyers at least, may be the booklet (in German, English, and French), which offers a detailed essay on the issues surrounding the work along with a personal reflection by Sepec on the Bach-like Passacaglia associated with the 15 sonatas, and, best of all, reproductions of the beautiful engravings of the Mysteries from Biber's manuscript (who did them is yet another mystery). Only because the rest of the booklet is so painstakingly done would one note that harpsichord builder Keith Hill is from Michigan, not Massachusetts. The church sound is brittle and bright, and perhaps too much so for what may, as Wollny pointed out, be a secular work rather than a religious one.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2