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Ionarts in Manchester: Biber's Rosary Sonatas

This is the conclusion of the Ionarts coverage of the the Eleventh Biennial International Conference on Baroque Music in Manchester, England. Here are Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

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Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, Rosenkranz-Sonaten, Musica Antiqua Köln
On the last night of the conference, we heard another concert, featuring Tassilo Erhardt on violin, Robert Rawson again on bass viol, and Pieter Dirksen on harpsichord and organ. The program honored two tricentennials, the 300th anniversaries of composers Georg Muffat and Heinrich Biber, who both died in 1704. (It is also an anniversary year for Marc-Antoine Charpentier: see the review of the first concert at this conference, on July 25.) Three pieces by Muffat opened the concert: the Passacaglia in G minor, played on harpsichord, the Sonata Violino Solo (1677), for violin and continuo, and the Toccata no. 10, played on the modern organ in the Brown Shipley Concert Hall. What concluded the first part of the concert was far more noteworthy, the Chiacona in C for violin and continuo by Antonio Bertali (1605–1669). This sort of piece was a standard in the 17th century, the simplest harmonic bass pattern that repeats over and over in a persistent variation. The effect it inevitably creates is a hypnotic suspension of the normal rules of harmony, allowing Baroque composers to introduce daring progressions. The spell of this sort of composition is an interesting precursor of what Philip Glass and the other minimalists would start in the 1970s. By the end of it, Tassilo had had quite a workout with the endless divisions.

On the second half of the concert, there was one piece by Vincent Lübeck (1654–1740), a prelude and fugue in A minor from 1728. The rest of the program belonged to Biber, especially two pieces from the famous Rosary Sonatas, composed around 1674. This is a set of sixteen pieces, each one accompanied by a picture of the fifteen mysteries of the rosary (increased to 20 by the present pope in 2002) and the last one—the Passacaglia in G minor, which we heard on this concert—with a picture of a guardian angel leading a child. The other piece from the group that we heard was the Sonata in G, the tenth in the collection, corresponding to the image of the crucifixion of Jesus, the last of the five sorrowful mysteries of the rosary. These sonatas are infamously difficult, especially because of the scordature, or special retunings required of the violinist, and it was a treat to hear them.

Tassilo is a gifted violinist and scholar (he gave a paper at the conference on the exegetical tradition regarding the canticle of Moses in Exodus, sung after crossing the Red Sea, and how it may have influenced Baroque depictions of the music of the Israelites), and he gave a spectacular performance at this concert. He will soon be married to Peter Holman's daughter Sally, and their performing group, Apollo and Pan, won the Early Music Network International Young Artists' Competition in 2001. Pieter Dirksen, who is also based in Utrecht, was excellent as well.

After this final pleasure for the ears, the only conference business remaining was to decide where the next party would be held. After hearing three proposals at the Sunday morning business meeting, the conference attendees voted overwhelmingly to hold the conference in 2006 in Warsaw. I have always wanted to visit Poland, and now I have a great excuse.

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