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Ionarts-at-Large: Missa Salisburgensis in Viennensis cum Savall

Biber Me This

A charming tale surrounds Orazio Benevoli and his fifty-three-part High Mass for the Consecration of the Salzburg Cathedral in 1628. The elaborate story about the twenty-six-year-old Roman composer carrying the huge score (thirty-two by twenty-three inches!) across the Alps and then conducting it at said consecration is touching, even exciting. It is also bunkum. It is now understood that the composer of the masterpiece known as the Missa Salisburgensis was not Benevoli, but Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644–1704). And it wasn’t for the consecration of the cathedral that this work was performed, but the occasion of the eleven hundredth anniversary of the Salzburgian Archbishopric in 1682.

Biber combines sixteen voices, thirty-four orchestral parts, two organs and basso continuo into a lavish and transparent masterpiece — a last glorious hurrah in a style that was fast becoming outdated. As early music maven Reinhard Goebel, founder of Musica Antiqua Köln, says: “Even Jean-Baptiste Lully’s compositions for the battles of Sun King Louis XIV feel like intimate chamber music next to the forces assembled here.” Goebel played fourth Violin in the first commercial recording (then still marketed under Benevoli) and was, thirty years later, co-leader of the most successful Missa Salisburgensis recording. He suggests that the cultural glory and pomp of the time would make the city’s current offerings, marketed under the “Salzburg Festival” label look like feeble and shoddy in comparison.

available at Amazon
H.I.F.Biber, Missa Salisburgensis,
P.McCreesh, R.Goebel / Gabrieli Consort & Players et al.

available at Amazon
H.I.F.Biber, Battalia à 10,
J.Savall / Le Concert De Nations et al.

Hurray, then, that the Wiener Konzerthaus has put it on to anchor their early music festival “Resonanzen” around a very fine cast of performers: Jordi Savall (whose expressive face makes him look like a painting of himself; with the varnish from 200 years ago) and his ensembles Hespèrion XXI and Le Concert des Nations and sixteen singers (eight soloists, three outstanding) put on a show on Sunday, January 18th. But not without a couple teasers first: two processional pieces by Biber’s Salzburg colleague Bartholomäus Riedl and three further Biber-bits.

Lovely and all, the Plaudite tympana à 53 (which accompanied the mass when it was first performed), or how the sonata of the Battalia à 10 started out tip-toed like a cat a mouse from at six ‘o clock. And how the band then let it rip before hitting the drunken fugue of “Liederliche Gesellschaft” (lewd society). Quite humorous, the piece, as it deliberately falls apart—and short enough not to overstay its welcome (like Mozart’s similar such joke does so brutally). The presto courtly, before Mars comes marching in, to the beat of a piece of paper wedged between the strings of a droning double bass as the 1st violinist fiddles and strides about. Another refined Aria / Andante provided the lulling quiet before the battle—which ensued directly after it. And not a second too early, lest the audience be rocked to sleep. A rather brief (or static) battle, come to think of it. And a short one, with the lamenting of the wounded beginning immediately. Finally the Sonata Sancti Polycarpi à 9 (showcasing the original instrument trumpeters and sensationally seductive timpanist/s of the group) led to the grand spectacle on the musical menu, and perhaps the nominal highlight (among highlights) of the Resonanzen festival: Biber’s Missa Salisburgensis.

Missa Salisburgensis

And there they came, the multitudes, the forces of hundreds, nay, thous… oh, actually just about 53 performers—truly a “one-to-a-part” performance. After Reinhard Goebel’s comments, I expected rather something by way of roman orgy—musically speaking—than an emaciated musical road-show. The performers filled the Konzerthaus easily and nicely with their glorious sound, even if it did not come across with any hint of bombast, imagining (rightly or wrongly as I now wonder) the premiere to have been more like the original ‘Symphony of a Thousand’. All the better to enjoy some of the exquisite voices of the 16 singers, then… foremost those of mezzo Marianne Beate Kielland, countertenor Pascal Bertin, and tenor Nicholas Mulroy.

The result was glorious, triumphal, and, if one is perfectly honest, just a little bit boring. Just the Missa Salisburgensis and perhaps the Plaudite tympana à 53, which so obviously fits, would have been plenty, without all the other nice-and-same-ish trumpeting and timpai-ing. Everyone would have felt enriched, no one—surely—short-changed.

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