- Mystery Sonatas (16), for violin & basso continuo (or solo violin), C. 90-105
Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber's "Mystery Sonatas," composed around 1674, are unique in the history of music. They form a kind of circle, featuring 15 different violin tunings (referred to as scordatura) before a final passacaglia returns to the normal tuning. The work is rife with symbolic aspects (two of the violin's strings must be crossed for the Crucifixion sonatas, No. 10, for example), and these, together with a lack of solid documentary evidence as to how the sonatas should be performed (it is not even clear whether they are for violin solo or for violin and continuo), has called forth a huge volume of speculation about the set. The speculation reaches new heights in the booklet for this disc, which accompanies the violins -- three different Baroque instruments are used, accompanied by a continuo consisting of keyboard plus a plucked stringed instrument, with several of each on hand. The number of violins is relevant. Other players have used as few as one, but violinist Rüdiger Lotter claims, based on the amount of time it takes to retune the instruments in a performance setting, that three is the optimal number -- and three is, of course, a handy number when one is dealing with Christian themes. This trinity of violins becomes part of a remarkable numerological edifice. There is no way to do justice to it here, but suffice it to point out that the number 2772 (which "signifies the 72 books of the Holy Scripture, of which 27 form the New Testament") is identified as both the number of measures in the whole work and the product of certain intervals that may be abstracted from the scordatura tunings themselves. This is just the beginning, however. Lotter delves into Biber's rather mysterious written preface for the work, ultimately linking it to astronomer Johannes Kepler's treatise The Harmony of the World, published in 1619. No summary can do justice to this intellectual edifice, which is, of course, inaudible in the music itself -- and which is no more or less persuasive than other interpretations that have been proposed. Certainly numerology was part of the Baroque mind, and one that seems to lurk as well in Bach's virtuoso violin works -- those who have hunted for symbolic proportions in Bach should absolutely investigate this recording. Yet the whole thing may bring to mind the gleeful tendencies of fundamentalist Christians to seize on numerological signs of the end of the world -- and the parodies of that tendency that have periodically surfaced. Bottom line: the performances are more than competent (the continuo alternation between a harpsichord and a small organ is especially effective), and as for the rest, it will appeal to mathematical minds above all.