Julia Wedman

Biber: Mystery Sonatas

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Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber's Mystery Sonatas, composed in the 1670s and 1680s, have almost as many interpretations as there are violinists. They're sometimes known as the "Rosary Sonatas," for the "mysteries" involved are the so-called Mysteries of the Rosary, episodes from the life of Christ that furnish material for meditative prayers undertaken with the devotional aid of Rosary prayer beads. Engravings of these episodes appear in Biber's original presentation manuscript of these works (whose cover is missing), and Canadian violinist Julia Wedman, inspired by paintings of the Mysteries of the Rosary she saw in the Aula Academica in Salzburg, emphasizes the sonatas' programmatic detail in her readings. There's no firm evidence that Biber himself was inspired by these paintings, but the idea isn't implausible. Wedman makes two unusual choices in implementing her programmatic idea. The first she shares with Andrew Manze and a few other violinists: instead of switching off among violins as Biber's scordatura or retuning directions become progressively more bizarre, she continues to play the same violin, forcing it into contortions as it approaches Christ's crucifixion and other, well, crucial episodes. This is not the usual approach, but it is persuasive if only because violinists in Biber's time did not possess a rack full of instruments. Wedman's second procedure may be less justifiable historically: she enlists the continuo players in her attempt to make these sonatas into detailed representational works. The same logic that supports her single-violin approach puts the continuo in question: would Biber or other violinists presenting these piece have had the luxury of trading off among gamba, theorbo, archlute, organ, harpsichord, cello, and harp as Wedman's accompanists do here? It's not likely, and it takes the focus off the violin in true virtuoso works. Her realization is never unmusical, however, and it builds nicely to the Crucifixion and Resurrection movements. She has plenty of technical resources to bear on the Passacaglia "The Guardian Angel," which on this and several other recordings is deployed as a finale to the Mystery Sonata cycle. This is an unusually speculative set of Mystery Sonatas, but one that will appeal to those who have come under the work's spell (if that word is permissible here). Notes, partly by Wedman herself, are in English only.

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