Biber: Mystery Sonatas / Alan Choo, Apollo's Fire

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"The violinist’s playing is extraordinary — as fresh and improvisatory as though he were composing each sonata on the spot, but also infused with an infectious emotional ardor." -- Cleveland Classical

The Mystery Sonatas by Austrian composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, believed to have been penned in the 1670s, remain unsurpassed for their virtuosity and extended use of scordatura, a unique tuning system that underscores different aural colours and timbres of the violin, thereby illuminating the pictorial themes of the Rosary – the processions devoted to major moments in the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary – which Biber’s work depicts.

Singaporean violinist Alan Choo, the vibrant leader of acclaimed baroque ensemble Apollo’s Fire, headlines a dynamic and descriptive recording of the Mystery Sonatas, enhancing the scordatura with six different violins that require 15 individual tunings. He explains, “The use of a unique scordatura tuning for each sonata means that a violinist needs to use multiple violins if performing several of the pieces in the same week – each violin kept at the tuning of its respective sonata. Otherwise, the constant re-tuning of a violin would destabilize its tuning. I used a total of six violins in this recording. The personality of each instrument shines through.”

Joined by a chamber ensemble of his Apollo’s Fire colleagues, including founding director Jeannette Sorrell on harpsichord, Choo navigates Biber’s extended techniques with aplomb and devotion to the 15 programmatic sonatas which are compiled into three cycles – the Joyful Mysteries (the Angel Gabriel delivers the news to Mary that she will be the mother of the Messiah), Sorrowful Mysteries (Jesus’ agony, knowing he is about to be betrayed) and Glorious Mysteries (the Resurrection of Christ and his ascent to heaven) – and are crowned by the timeless finale, Passacaglia for solo violin.


[The Mystery Sonatas'] extraordinary technical challenges include Biber’s requirement that the soloist play violins with strings “mis-tuned” (scordatura) from the normal G-D-A-E pitches for 13 of the 15 sonatas, creating different resonances in the instrument for expressive purposes. For somber subjects like “The Agony in the Garden,” the open strings play A-flat – E-flat – G – D, clashing pitches “evoking a sense of struggle,” as Choo writes. For triumphant subjects like “The Ascension,” the open strings are tuned to create a “glorious” C-Major chord. For the recording, Choo has used a total of six instruments to avoid constant retuning that would be destabilizing.

The violinist’s playing is extraordinary — as fresh and improvisatory as though he were composing each sonata on the spot, but also infused with an infectious emotional ardor.

An important aspect of this recording project is the realization of the basso continuo line, which could — as on other recordings — simply be chorded by organ or harpsichord. Never one to pass up the opportunity to tell a vivid story, Sorrell writes, "as a continuo player myself, I have always felt that the extraordinarily imaginative writing in Biber’s masterpiece calls for an imaginative and colorful approach to the accompaniment."

Thus Choo’s superb supporting cast includes harpsichord (Sorrell), chamber organ (Peter Bennett), cello and viola da gamba (René Schiffer), archlute and Baroque guitar (Brian Kay), theorbo (William Sims), triple harp (Anna O’Connell), and viola da gamba and lirone (Kivie Cahn-Lipman). There’s even a bit of percussion (Brian Kay) to accompany the Aria Tubicinum in “The Ascension.” Used judiciously and only rarely all together, they add texture and depth to the sonatas.

Even if you’re not into Roman Catholic mysticism, this recording should be treasured by fans of early Baroque music.

-- ClevelandClassical

Product Description:

  • Release Date: March 01, 2024

  • Catalog Number: AV2656

  • UPC: 822252265620

  • Label: AVIE Records

  • Number of Discs: 2

  • Period: Baroque

  • Composer: Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Jeannette Sorrell Apollo's Fire

  • Performer: Alan Choo