Festival Music

Biber Rosary Sonatas

St Cecilia’s Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

four stars

POSSIBLY not since Ravi Shankar’s sitar appearance at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh has a musician’s tuning up had the attention that Rachel Podger commanded in the rather more intimate space of Edinburgh’s beautifully refurbished little recital room.

Her accompanists, Polish keyboard player Marvin Swiatkiewicz and Italian lutenist Daniele Camaniti, helped bring on stage the four violins she would need to play five short pieces in five different tunings during the following 40 minutes. They were the first instalment of a three-concert series of the cycle of sonatas Salzburg’s Heinrich Ignaz Fran’s von Biber wrote in the latter half of the 17th century, depicting the early life and passion of Jesus Christ and his mother Mary. With the ministry of Christ absent from this focus, the first five move only as far as His boyhood from the Annunciation, but there was already an astonishing variety in the music Biber composed for the project, thanks mainly to those radical “scordatura” tunings, with the soloist accompanied by various combinations of theorbo, harpsichord and chamber organ.

So if the opening one was the most Bach-like and familiar in structure, the central picture of the Nativity had all the intimacy of the nursery, in the close tuning of the strings and simple theorbo backing in the central section. Christ’s Presentation at the Temple, which followed, began as a formal processional before the theme became the basis for a sequence of increasing virtuosic and even frantic variations. This first sequence culminated in the discovery of the missing boy Christ in the same place, in a piece that has a distinctly folk feel with a big open major tuning, and the unmistakable suggestion that the peasant people will always have something to tell the professional clergy,

Biber is known to many people only for his lively Battalia. Podger’s performances of these sonatas, which were played incorrectly in standard tuning for many years, come as Linn releases a fine recording of them by Christina Day Martinson and Boston Baroque. The live experience continues at St Cecilia’s on Thursday and Friday.