Biber: Mensa Sonora, Battalia / Clarke, Baroque Band

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REVIEW:Since the demise of The City Musick some 16 years ago, Chicago has been without a period-instrument orchestra. Plenty of smaller chamber groups have been...


Since the demise of The City Musick some 16 years ago, Chicago has been without a period-instrument orchestra. Plenty of smaller chamber groups have been trying to fill the void, but it’s not quite the same as having a full-sized period orchestra that can tackle the larger works. Many metropolitan areas in North America can boast of having a Baroque orchestra—San Francisco, Boston, New York, Seattle, Cleveland, Toronto, Montreal. For a great city like Chicago to go without is unthinkable. The formation of the Baroque Band in 2007 was therefore something of an event and grounds for celebration. That this took place on the cusp of a severe economic downturn is even more remarkable. The present CD is the group’s debut recording, and shows it to consist of a nicely rounded 5-4-3-2-1 plus harpsichord, a healthy size by any standard. My thanks to Jim Ginsberg and his enterprising Cedille label for affording us non-Chicagoans the chance to examine the group for the first time. 

In the press release to the CD, Baroque violinist and founder Gary Clarke speculates that this may be the first time the six suites of Biber’s Mensa sonora have been recorded using full orchestra, and he may be right. My past favorite, and the Baroque Band’s chief competition, is the version by Musica Antiqua Köln and Reinhard Goebel (Archiv 423701, nla). Naturally, one cannot expect the same sort of individualistic chamber-music approach from an orchestral performance, but within the context of a larger group, the Baroque Band plays with admirable style and precision. A minor quibble has to do with the omnipresent and very prominent harpsichord continuo. Well played as it is by David Schrader, the occasional inclusion of a theorbo or chamber organ would have provided some much-needed variety.

The featured work is the famous Battalia à 10 (subtitled “for violin, strings, and basso continuo in D Major” in the booklet), and its history on record is traceable to the classic premiere recording by Concentus Musicus from 1966. That LP, which contained several other works of Biber as well as music of Muffat, was rereleased on CD in the early ’90s as part of the Collectio Argentea series (Archiv 437081, nla). It’s fascinating to compare the two period-instrument performance styles of 1966 and 2010. Back then, violinist Alice Harnoncourt played with a very sweet, vibrato-y sound, but also with great authority and presence. Here, Gary Clarke is equally authoritative, but his sound is straighter and ultimately more apropos than Harnoncourt’s. Compared to the ultra-polished but somewhat laid-back Concentus Musicus, the Baroque Band is a well-drilled regiment, clearly in command of the music. It plays with greater energy and really digs into the Bartók pizzicati in “Die Schlacht.” The players ham it up delightfully in the Lamento movement, a perfect depiction of a bunch of drunken soldiers. The “fife and drum” movement is memorable—for once, the parchment-wrapped double bass really sounds like a drum. Of the several versions that have appeared over the years, including MAK’s, the Baroque Band’s is the most successful in capturing the spirit of this unusual and innovative music.

My main complaint about the CD is that there isn’t enough of it! A timing of 56 minutes is pretty skimpy these days—it would have been easy to add another couple of works by Biber, the Pauern Kirchenfahrt , perhaps, or the Sonata representativa . The recorded sound is first-rate, and Gary Clarke’s notes afford a good introduction to the music. An excellent, urgently recommended debut disc.

FANFARE: Christopher Brodersen

Biber's Mensa Sonora ("Sonorous Table") doesn't get as much play as some of his more virtuosic violin works, but it contains splendid music nonetheless. By any standard this is an excellent performance for a period-instrument group, largely because director Garry Clarke made the smart decision to use a larger-size ensemble rather than having the music played one to a part. In his booklet notes Clarke offers all kinds of ridiculous "historical" reasons supporting this decision, and it's sad that today it is unacceptable for period-instrument performers to offer the one reason that we know would have been as valid in the composer's own time as it is in ours: the music sounds better this way.

Mensa Sonora consists of six parts (called "Pars" appropriately enough), each containing from five to seven brief movements. These range from delicate arias and sarabandes to the vigorous and rhythmically inventive second Balletto from Pars II, and including a couple of imposing Chaconnes (in Pars III and VI). A larger ensemble gives more weight and sonority (that's "Sonora", right?) to the big moments, and a richer but still intimate sound to the lighter ones. Sure, there's the usual minimization of vibrato, which is wrong, but with multiple players it matters less than usual, and to his credit Clarke permits them none of that whiny squeezing of notes that so many period ensembles deploy to the point of mannerism in lyrical passages.

The Battalia makes a substantial bonus. Clarke and his company really play up the battle scene, and the drunken soldiers make a jolly cacophony. Only the final lament of the dying doesn't quite work--it seems to me that it should be simply touching and played more or less straight, without the lachrymose chromaticism exaggerated quite so much. Of course, this is very much a matter of taste. As usual with this label, the engineering is superbly natural and well-balanced. A fine disc that all fans of Baroque music will want to consider.

--David Hurwitz,

Product Description:

  • Release Date: February 23, 2010

  • UPC: 735131911627

  • Catalog Number: CDR116

  • Label: Cedille

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Period: Baroque

  • Composer: Heinrich Ignaz Biber

  • Conductor: Garry Clarke

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Baroque Band

  • Performer: Clarke, Baroque Band


  1. Mensa Sonora

    Composer: Heinrich Ignaz Biber

    Ensemble: Baroque Band

    Conductor: Garry Clarke

  2. Battalia for Violin, Strings and Basso Continuo in D major

    Composer: Heinrich Ignaz Biber

    Ensemble: Baroque Band

    Conductor: Garry Clarke