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Music to Eat By, or Not

available at Amazon
Biber, Mensa sonora / Battalia, Baroque Band, G. Clarke

(released on February 23, 2010)
Cedille CDR 90000 116 | 56'50"

available at Amazon
Mensa sonora (music by Biber, Muffat, others), Masques, O. Fortin

(released on April 5, 2007)
Analekta AN 2 9909 | 69'10"

Online scores:
Biber: Mensa sonora | Battalia | Sonatae tam aris quam aulis servientes
Those who revere classical music often cringe, as pianist Stephen Hough recently did, when people like to listen to classical music because "it's so relaxing." As Hough put it, "It's anything, everything but that." (Greg Sandow has made similar observations about how many people enjoy classical music because it is "soothing.") Well, the assumption that classical music is too profound, too affecting to be merely relaxing reflects attitudes about classical music mostly from the 19th century onward: the fact is that much of the music we now call classical, especially instrumental music from the 17th and 18th centuries, was written for exactly that purpose, to divert the ears of a patron and his guests. Furthermore, it was often intended to be played while the listener was doing something else, dancing with friends, reading, or even gathered with guests eating dinner at table. This sounds very much like how many people "use" classical music now, playing it at home while they make dinner or read in the evening. Most of us cannot hire our own chamber orchestra, so we have radios and MP3 players. Going one step further, Steve Almond has recently wondered if the iPod culture has made music into a permanent background to which one does not ever seriously listen.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704) published his collection of six little instrumental suites, Mensa sonora, in 1680, each one a group of five to seven miniatures on dance rhythms or following instrumental forms. The publication was dedicated to Biber's employer in this period of his life, Maximilian Gandolph von Khüenburg, Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg (the predecessor in that see of the famous employer of Leopold Mozart and his son). The title, meaning the "sonorous table," refers to the purpose of this music, lighter and less demanding than much of Biber's music, which was to be played while people ate.

It seems unlikely that one was intended to hear the entire suite at one sitting: well, at least, that is a fairly unsatisfying way to listen to it, as experienced in the new recording of the complete Mensa sonora by Chicago's Baroque Band. Biber specialists might want to own a recording of the complete set, but some of the intonation and blend problems heard in this disc prevent me from recommending it. The group's director, Garry Clarke, opts to perform the work with a larger ensemble of sixteen players, rather than with a chamber group playing one to a part. Nothing wrong with that approach, but it is hard not to wonder if the result would have been of a higher quality with just a handful of the ensemble's best players. It is less of an issue in the much more (intentionally) raucous performance of the D major Battalia, one of many instrumental works from this period meant to depict the sounds of battle. The second movement of this piece is one of the most outrageously dissonant pieces of music I have heard from before the 20th century.

What I definitely can recommend is a slightly less recent recording by another relatively new early music ensemble based in Montréal. Masques played at the National Gallery of Art this past October, but Ionarts was not able to hear their performance, a missed opportunity indeed on the basis of this lovely disc. The program matches two of the suites from Mensa sonora with some much more interesting works by Biber and his contemporaries. The ensemble of six players includes various combinations of two violins and three violas da gamba, led by director Olivier Fortin from the harpsichord and organ. The tone of the instruments is clear, beautifully tuned and balanced, and captured in luscious, detail-heavy, warm sound (Analekta, sessions in 2005 at the Church of Saint-Augustin de Mirabel). All of the selections -- by Georg Muffat, Johann Michael Nicolai, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, and Augustinus Kertzinger, as well as Biber -- are worth hearing, with Nicolai's sonata for three violas da gamba standing out as something I could listen to every day, especially its tragically gorgeous ciacona final movement, for a long time and not tire of hearing again. We sincerely hope that Masques returns to Washington soon.

1 comment:

ezervac said...

" Steve Almond has recently wondered if the iPod culture has made music into a permanent background to which one does not ever seriously listen." We were a long way into that culture before the iPod came along!