Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber was widely acknowledged as the outstanding violin virtuoso of his age, and his Rosary Sonatas (The Sacred Mysteries), his best-known works, are the most impressive testimony to his gifts as a performer and composer. The 15 sonatas are grouped into sections corresponding to the three mysteries of the Rosary (The Joyful Mysteries, The Sorrowful Mysteries, and The Glorious Mysteries) of five sonatas each scored for violin and continuo, and the set concludes with a passacaglia titled "The Glorious Angel," for solo violin. For all but the first and last movements, Biber uses scordatura, the re-tuning of strings of the violin to alter the tone color and to open up possibilities for playing chords that would be awkward or impossible with standard tuning. The re-tuned violin has broadly expanded harmonic capabilities, and multiple stops can be used with freedom and regularity, often creating the effect of more than one instrument playing, so its part is unusually rich and textured.
Leah Gale Nelson delivers a robust, securely grounded performance of the sonatas, playing with a clean but vibrant tone. Her approach highlights the earthy vitality of the stories depicted in the music rather than an airy ethereality, and the effect is bracing. She brings plenty of nuance to each of the pieces and persuasively heightens the intense emotionality of the religious devotion that the movements are intended to inspire, so "The Finding of Jesus in the Temple" is exuberantly celebratory, for example, and "The Agony in the Garden" is darkly wrenching. Biber's daunting technical demands sound effortless in her confident, shapely playing. The elegant realization of the continuo adds to the attractiveness of this version. The cycle has been recorded using a variety of configurations, some including a full ensemble, to play the continuo part, but Nelson's approach is relatively simple, with theorbo played by Daniel Swenberg and organ played by Dongsok Shin. The sustained tones of the organ and the plucked theorbo provide timbral variety and appropriately leave ample room for the solo violin to shine. Motomi Igarashi playing violone makes a colorful and resonant addition in one of the sonatas, "The Ascension." Lyrichord's sound is full, warmly intimate, and ideally resonant.