The Strad Issue: January 2014
Description: A vibrant performance of a 17th-century sonata collection
Musicians: Ars Antiqua Austria/Gunar Letzbor (violin/director)
Composer: Biber

Ars Antiqua Austria’s investigation of Biber’s instrumental music continues with Fidicinium sacro-profanum (1683), twelve sonatas scored for one or two violins, two violas and continuo. Combining sacred and secular styles, these brief sonatas subdivide into two groups of six, the first in five and the second in four parts.

Gunar Letzbor and Friedrich Kircher form a matching violin partnership in the first six sonatas and receive alert, colourful and stylish support in realising Biber’s intricate polyphony. Tempo changes are effortlessly negotiated – little is ill considered or misjudged. The ensemble’s vigorous, dramatic and sometimes highly extrovert readings make compelling listening, particularly when quiet, sober or cantabile sections are sharply contrasted with incisive and abrasively invigorating playing, percussive noises and so on, notably in parts of Sonatas nos.2, 3 5 and 6.

Letzbor’s contribution is particularly strong in personality in Sonatas nos.7–12. Performing with taste and refinement, the players transform each sonata into a kind of wordless mini-drama, revealing many fine interior details. Highlights for me are their lucidly balanced part-playing in no.7, their realisation of Biber’s adventurous harmony in nos.8 and 9, and their deft characterisation of sharply contrasting sections in no.11.

The recording is clean and vibrant, with enough background resonance to give the music a sense of space.