Heinrich Biber: Violin Sonata in F Major – Augusta McKay Lodge, Eva Lymenstull, Hanneke van Proosdij, Voices of Music

The sonata for violin and continuo in F Major by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. Live, 4K video from the Voices of music Stylus Phantasticus concert, 2020. Augusta McKay Lodge, baroque violin, Eva Lymenstull, baroque cello, Hanneke van Proosdij, harpsichord. Just as Bach created a concerto for solo harpsichord, so did Heinrich Biber create a concerto grosso for violin a generation earlier. Biber skillfully combines double stops, fiery virtuosity, simple dance tunes and an over-the-top cadenza to create one of his finest works. Temperament: meantone 415.3 Hz. The Sonata in F Major shows the composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber at the height of his compositional powers. Written at the culmination of the German “fantastic style,” the sonata is not as well known as his “rosary” sonatas, which include his passacaglia for unaccompanied violin; howver, this sonata showcases all of the virtuoso techniques that Biber could fashion into a well-balanced composition. The opening motive quotes the opening of the Corelli Concerto in F Major (Op. 6 No. 2); it is likely that Biber heard an early, unpublished version of the work. Using double stops, the violinist here imitates both of the violins of Corelli, a sort of playful joke at Corelli’s expense, and by imitating the sound of the solo and tutti sections of a double concerto, Biber announces that the listener is in for a special treat. The “concerto” is promptly interrupted by an improvisatory series of rapid scales, then Biber presents the opening themes in the dominant key, just as in Corelli’s work, but again playing both parts on one instrument. The next section is a delightful theme and variation set. This is followed by a wild storm section, with the violin now taking on the role of an orchestra tutti. The monumental variation set over a ground bass, which could stand alone as a complete work, evokes the structural weight of the ground bass in the Biber E Minor violin sonata. Biber concludes with a dazzling clarion call and an extended cadenza over an oom-pah bass line. The baroque music theorist and historian Athanasius Kircher listed and defined the Stylus Phantasticus as one of his nine styli expressi (modes of expression) in his Musurgia Universalis (1650): “The fantastic style is appropriate for instruments; it is the most free and most unrestrained method of composing, it is bound to nothing, not to any words nor to a melodic subject: it was developed to display creativity and to teach the hidden design of harmony and the ingenious composition of harmonic phrases and fugues. It may especially be seen in those works which are commonly called fantasias, ricercars, toccatas and sonatas.” Writing retrospectively, in the 18th century, the music theorist and composer Johann Mattheson described the style thus: “… now swift, now slow, now in one part, now in many, sometimes diverging from the beat, sometimes pianissimo, but never without a pleasing affect, to overwhelm and to amaze….” At its heart, the Fantastic Style is defined by a true freedom from the text which had for hundreds of years been the basis for the sacred motet. In addition, the new style employed many of the new compositional techniques of the early baroque such as ritornello, fragmentation, thematic transformation and chromaticism. Some pieces for violin employ extended techniques to imitate the sounds of birds or of nature. Almost all works employ the technique of contrasting sections: each section or mini-section has a sharply defined character, meter and tempo. Lastly, the new style features a full measure of technical virtuosity for string, keyboard and wind instruments: freed from any considerations of “singability,” the instruments were allowed to use their full range and employ rapid arpeggios, extended passagework and double and triple stops to great effect.

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