Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber's "Rosary Sonatas" were written in Salzburg in the 1670s or 1680s, and they're really unlike anything else in the violin literature. Scordatura, or unconventional tuning of an instrument's strings, was common enough during the Baroque era, but Biber's cycle of 15 pieces for violin and continuo explores the technique exhaustively: each of the 15 sonatas uses a different tuning. The result is music of fearsome difficulty for the player, and, as with Bach's best music, technical complexity generates spiritual intensity. Each sonata represents one of the Mysteries of the Catholic Rosary, which are divided into five Joyful Mysteries (the Annunciation, for example), five Sorrowful Mysteries (concluding with Christ's crucifixion), and five Glorious Mysteries (centered on the Resurrection and on Mary's Assumption). Some of the tunings are downright outlandish; as the music reaches its spiritual climax in the "Resurrection" sonata, Biber specifies that the violin be played with its two central strings crossed, perhaps to symbolize the meeting of heaven and earth or the Cross of the Crucifixion itself.
The sheer individuality of the "Rosary Sonatas" has made them increasingly popular in recent years, and violinists have in turn taken sharply differing approaches to them. The distinctive feature of this set by Ukrainian-Irish violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk is his attempt to place the music deep into its original context, with notes by James Clements explaining the roots of Biber's work in an Austrian university fraternity devoted to the Rosary. The most obvious result of this performance philosophy is that each sonata is prefaced by a spoken reading (by Timothy West) of a relevant text, taken from one of three old Rosary psalters. This will be either spiritually enlightening or extremely off-putting, depending on your point of view. Beznosiuk himself, playing on a variety of Baroque violins, ably sets a mystical tone; in his own notes he refers to Zen Buddhism, so this is plainly not intended as some kind of Catholic tract in music.
The nicest feature of this recording is the three-person continuo accompaniment, which offers evocatively shifting colors as each of the three players switches between pairs of closely related instruments. Keyboardist David Roblou plays a harpsichord and a very nifty chamber organ. Paula Chateauneuf alternates between theorbo and archlute, instruments that blend beautifully with Roblou's organ and deep-voiced harpsichord. Finally, Richard Tunnicliffe plays both a viola da gamba and the much less often-heard violone. Avie's sound engineering is very well attuned to what's happening here. Violinists and continuo players will want to hear this disc regardless of whether they own a set of Rosary beads.