Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber's Rosary Sonatas were written in Salzburg in the 1670s or 1680s, and they're really unlike anything else in the violin literature. Scordatura, or unconventional tuning of an instrument's strings, was common enough during the Baroque era, but Biber's cycle of 15 pieces for violin and continuo explores the technique exhaustively: each of the 15 sonatas uses a different tuning. The result is music of fearsome difficulty for the player, and, as with Bach's best music, technical complexity generates spiritual intensity. Each sonata represents one of the Mysteries of the Catholic Rosary, which are divided into five Joyful Mysteries (the Annunciation, for example), five Sorrowful Mysteries (concluding with Christ's crucifixion), and five Glorious Mysteries (centered on the Resurrection and on Mary's Assumption). Some of the sonatas have three movements, often with two slow, quasi-improvisatory movements surrounding a central "Aria" or piece in dance rhythm. Others are series of dances, and a few are long single movements approaching the elaborate architecture of the Chaconne from Bach's Partita No. 2 for solo violin. Some of the tunings are downright outlandish; as the music reaches its spiritual climax in the "Resurrection" sonata, Biber specifies that the violin be played with its two central strings crossed, perhaps to symbolize the meeting of heaven and earth. A helpful short commentary by Andrew Manze included at the end of disc two explains the scordatura technique for those who would rather listen than read.
Manze, a British Baroque violinist who has led the English Concert and the Academy of Ancient Music, brings these pieces alive. Performing on a 1700 violin with sheep gut strings, he retunes the instrument for each sonata rather than playing on a set of pre-tuned instruments. This allows the listener to hear the radical changes in tone the violin undergoes as the levels of pressure on its strings are altered. Manze puts it this way in his notes: "As it is pulled into different tunings, the violin undergoes experiences, some pleasant (as in the Visitation and Coronation), some traumatic (the Agony and Crowning with Thorns, for example)." The sequence of tunings matches the events of Christ's life, with the Sorrowful Mysteries rendered in harsh, tense tones. This hasn't always been clear in earlier performances of the work, and observers have tried with dubious success to find more overt pictorialism. Biber shifts mood rather than painting pictures, and the scordatura technique plays a primary role.
There are a few problems with this recording. The break between the two discs is unfortunate; the "Crucifixion and Death of Jesus" sonata is orphaned at the beginning of disc two, and the listener, changing CDs, will miss the highly dramatic transition from the carrying of the cross to the crucifixion. And the continuo accompaniment by Richard Egarr can be questioned. He shifts between organ and harpsichord, bringing out the more improvisatory flights of the violin nicely but creating some contrasts that Baroque audiences might or might not have found idiomatic. Neither of these complaints, however, detracts from Manze's impressive achievement here.