Biber: Mensa Sonora; Battalia (CD review)

Garry Clarke, Baroque Band. Cedille Records CDR 90000 116).

The first thing you should know about this album is that Cedille's Bill Maylone engineered it, which means right away that it ought to be of interest to audiophiles. Second, it features Chicago's Baroque Band, a relatively new period-instruments ensemble that plays with style and passion. And, third, it contains the music of Bohemian-Austrian composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704), whose work may be unknown to most listeners but is certainly worth enjoying. Let's look at these items in reverse order.

Biber is probably the most-famous seventeenth-century composer you've never heard of.  Twenty-odd years ago, the world had practically forgotten him, but thanks largely to the period-instruments movement, his star is beginning to brighten once more, and there are finally a few recordings of his stuff around. Count this newest disc from Cedille among the better ones.

The album begins with Biber's Mensa Sonora ("Sounding Table") from 1680.  It's a set of six Parts or suites of five-to-seven movements each, written by Biber most likely as background dinner music for large gatherings, maybe at court. Clarke explains in a booklet note that on most other recordings we hear the music played by smaller groups than the fifteen or so performers in the Baroque Band, but he justifies his larger ensemble performing it by suggesting that Biber undoubtedly intended the music for a larger band if possible, anyway. Certainly, the larger group makes the music sound richer and more robust.

The various movements of Mensa Sonora are mostly lively, catchy, entertaining...and wholly forgettable. It really wasn't meant to be heard and analyzed; people were probably eating dinner while it was played, after all. You'll hear the usual array of alamandas, sarabandas, gavottes, gigues, ballettos, arias, sonatinas, and the like here, reminiscent of much French dance music of the day. Each listener will have his or her own favorites, of course; mine is Pars II in F major, where the melodies seem more innovative, more refreshing, more colorful, and more individualistic than most of the rest of the suites. Admittedly, much of this music does sound alike to me, but I could say the same about most types of music. Much jazz, pop, and rock sounds alike to me, too, when it's not distinguished by some shade of genius.

The second item on the disc is Biber's Battalia from 1673. It's his little programmatic "Battle Symphony," predating Beethoven's Wellington's Victory by over a hundred years. The music describes a battle and the activities of the soldiers in it. We hear the marching of the soldiers to the front, the cannon and musketry, and the shouting and bustle of the troops, preceded by a humorously drunken party and ending in a lament for fallen comrades. Although it's brief at only a little over eight minutes, it's a delight with all its folk music and knocking about (literally, with the musicians banging on their instruments to simulate the sounds of war).

The Baroque Band is the brainchild of British violinist and period-instruments exponent Garry Clarke, who came to Chicago in 2007 and founded the group. The fifteen or so members seem to be enjoying themselves immensely in the music, especially in the Battalia, and provide a variety of stylish touches throughout the program. Along with Boston Baroque and Philharmonia Baroque, they are a welcome addition to America's elite period-instruments crowd.

Recorded in 2008 and 2009, the Cedille sound is exceptionally clear and sparkling, with separate instruments well delineated and the bass line cleanly articulated. The harpsichord gets a prominent position in the middle of the group, yet it is never overpowering. What's more, because it is a small ensemble, orchestral depth is not an issue, and the players are well spread out between the speakers, miked fairly closely for maximum effect.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa