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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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa