Çedille Records' Biber: Mensa Sonora, Battalia is the first release from newly founded, Chicago-based period instrument group Baroque Band as led by its young director Garry Clarke. Violinist Clarke studied at the Royal College of Music in London with Catherine Mackintosh, who at the time was serving dual purpose roles as concertmaster with both the Academy of Ancient Music and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Clarke put in service with both these groups, and you may add the Sixteen, Hanover Band, and the King's Consort to that list before Clarke left for America in 2004 to join the faculty of the Music Institute of Chicago. Baroque Band was started in 2007 and in its first two seasons managed to play some 80 concerts; it has been welcomed by the City of Chicago as its resident period-instrument orchestra in an unofficial capacity.
Of course, by the time of release, all of Biber's music, provided there are no further discoveries among the disordered mass of manuscripts held at Kromeríz Cathedral, has been recorded, pieces such as Battalia many times. So the discovery aspect of Biber -- once so critical in driving interest in his oeuvre -- has lapsed and now his work has moved into the sphere of interpretation. What Clarke has done here is take the Partitas in Biber's Mensa Sonora publication of 1680 and interpret them as orchestral works rather than in the chamber context in which they are already familiar. Mensa Sonora well survives such treatment; in fact, it survives it so well that if it weren't for the existence of super exceptional interpretations of the piece in chamber dimensions -- such as that by La Follia Salzburg for Lyrichord -- that this Çedille recording takes the brass ring for the Biber work; the recording is full-throated, as is the ensemble, and the playing is vibrantly dynamic without outdistancing the "Tafelmusik" purpose to which Mensa Sonora was designed to conform. There is plenty of opportunity for Baroque Band to let down its hair in Battalia, particularly in the "here is all dissonance" section, which Clarke takes more slowly than many, affording the listener a chance to hear what Biber is really up to in this seemingly Ivesian section. One might have wanted a similar approach in the concluding, post-battle plaint, but in terms of interpretation, Clarke's ideas in terms of realization and Baroque style are completely sound throughout the disc. Battalia alone makes Çedille Records' Biber: Mensa Sonora, Battalia worth the price of admission, but the whole should please Biber's established following and newcomers alike.