ACRONYM: The Battle, the Bethel, & the Ball

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About

ACRONYM's exploration of the wild music written by and attributed to H.I.F. von Biber includes several pieces recorded here for the first time. Works include programmatic battle music, Latin church music, and dance suites.

Audio

Programmatic battle music has long been popular, from Renaissance polyphony in which singers imitate gunfire and cries, to Romantic-era orchestral works which feature actual cannon in the percussion section. Many seventeenth-century pieces of German battle music referred to military conflicts between the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire, which by then had been taking place periodically for more than three hundred years.

Perhaps the most famous surviving work of baroque battle music is the concluding piece on our recording, composed by H. I. F. von Biber, an Austrian composer who worked in Graz and Kroměříž before settling in Salzburg. Biber’s Battalia (1673) is in eight continuous movements and dedicated to the god Bacchus. A brief untitled introduction is followed by Die liederliche gesellschaft von allerley Humor (the dissolute company of all sorts of humor), in which eight contemporaneous folk songs are heard simultaneously in different keys, and a note in the manuscript reads: “hic dissonat ubique nam ebrii sic diversis Cantilenis clamare solent” (here is dissonant everywhere as drunks shout out various songs). This cacophony is followed by two untitled presto movements, with Der Mars (the god of war) between them. A gentle aria is a respite but segues directly into Die Schlacht (the battle). Der Mars and Die Schlacht each explicitly call for extended string techniques rarely heard until the twentieth century: striking the strings with the wood of the bow, threading paper between the strings to produce a rattle, and snap pizzicato. Battalia ends with an Adagio: Lamento der verwundten Musquetir (lament of the wounded musketeer).

The full program notes are included with the album, in an 18 page full color booklet.

Engineered, produced, and mastered by Ryan Streber, Oktaven Audio
Edited by Kivie Cahn-Lipman, Loren Ludwig, and Ryan Streber
Modern editions (Jucunda, Balettae, Sonatina, Ciacona) by Charles Brewer
Translations by Martha Brundage
Notes by Kivie Cahn-Lipman
ACRONYM photo by Jeff Weeks
Cover art by Hieronymus Bosch,
from The Garden of Earthly Delights
Design by Marc Wolf

ACRONYM

Baroque string ensemble ACRONYM is dedicated to giving modern premieres of the wild instrumental music of the seventeenth century. The group formed in 2012 to create the first recording of the "Alphabet Sonatas" of Johann Pezel. ACRONYM's following disc, sonatas by Antonio Bertali, was released in 2014 to critical acclaim; Alex Ross selected it as a CD pick, and Early Music America Magazine wrote "the idiomatic performances and spacious recording by these young musicians are absolutely first rate. This is a disc ... belonging in everyone's collection." In 2015 ACRONYM released a third album—the first recordings of Giovanni Valentini's instrumental works—which was praised in Gramophone for being "played with expertise, enthusiasm, and an almost tactile sense of timbre." In 2016 ACRONYM released its fourth album: Wunderkammer. Upcoming projects include the first recording of Samuel Capricornus's monumental "Jubilus Bernhardi" with the Bach Choir of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church.

http://www.acronymensemble.com

Reviews

Fanfare

I’m not quite sure why this potpourri of selections by or attributed to Biber (and we’ll get into that in a bit) required a subtitle, “the Battle the Bethel & the Ball”—written just like that presumably to drive copy editors to drink—which is about as revealing about this album’s contents as a disc featuring some well-known bass in Mozart’s sacred music and scurrilous vocal canons called “the Basilica, the Bass, & the Bars.” And, come to think of it, that might actually provide some sense of Mozart’s very human breadth of character to celebrate.

Not so, here. Instead, we have seven works listed as by the composer; and if there’s any thread uniting them, it’s the questionable attribution of five out of seven. That’s not apparent anywhere on the album cover—though to be fair, most other CDs I’ve purchased or received for review over the years including these compositions either reserve any brief comment about their authenticity for the liner notes, or fail to mention this fact at all. To his credit, the anonymous individual who wrote this release’s notes briefly considers the reasons for the dubious stature of each. Thus, the manuscript containing the dance suite for two antiphonal choirs, Balettae ad duos choros, was originally ascribed to “Henrico Biber,” which was subsequently crossed out and replaced with the currently unknown “Signore Hugi.” The Sonatina featuring viola da gamba now attributed to Biber was formerly credited to Augustinus Kertzinger on several albums, among them one by the ensemble Fantasticus (Resonus 10112), and another by Olivier Fortin and Masques entitled Mensa Sonora (Analekta 29909). The so-called Sonata Jucunda is found without attribution in the castle library at Kremsier (now Kroměříž) where Biber worked briefly for the Bishop of Olmütz, but some musicologists are now suggesting that a more likely composer for the piece is Heinrich Schmelzer. And the Ciacona (heard here in the longer of two known versions, claimed as a premiere recording) is anonymous, but again from Kroměříž, where Biber seems the most likely candidate for its authorship, given the stylistic markers.

Whether all of the works on this disc were composed by Biber or not is in any case less important a question than whether they maintain the same standard of compositional sophistication and frequently lively wit that Biber’s popular Battalia does. They do, and Acronym furnishes an excellent balance between spirited execution on the one hand, and stylistic appropriateness on the other. That isn’t always the case with other releases that have featured this music. For example, Camerata Nordica’s version of the Battalia on last year’s album, Tales of Sound and Fury (BIS 2756), decided to overlay the bizarre dissonances of the second movement with what sounds like loud comments and laughter. This recreates a cocktail party atmosphere which drowns out some of the music. Acronym’s lively performance digs into the rhythms with gusto, and phrases incisively.

They do so in yet another work available for comparison: the Biber-attributed cantata O dulcis Jesu. It’s a highly affective work, with Acronym pressing the strings harshly on the final line, “Jam, jam tecum volo, mi Jesu, mort!” (Now, now I want to die with you, my Jesus!). By contrast, Cord’Arte on an album of Baroque cantatas (Pan Classics 10293) is all silky smooth. Their soprano soloists mirror this division. Cord’Arte’s Hana Blažiková is technically adroit and a very “cool” performer, who concentrates entirely on musical values. Acronym’s Molly Quinn softens her voice for emotive effect—as on the repetition of the final, pleading word in the line, “Charitate tua me vulnera.” She also varies color by altering her vibrato, though this sometimes appears without regard to text or music. An American, Quinn presumably was also informed that she should pronounce her Latin as though she were German, so you might find it disconcerting that “qu” is sung as “kuh-vee,” as in kuh-vee-ee-rem-bam for “Quaerebam.” Still, I prefer overall the expressiveness she and Acronym bring to the work.

Whatever the authorship of so many items on this album, Acronym supplies them with enthusiastic and stylistically informed performances. Highly recommended.

-Barry Brenesal, 4.10.19, Fanfare

American Record Guide

I hope it is evident to long-time readers of ARG that I am particularly engaged with the music of Heinrich Iganz Franz von Biber. I have written about Biber and his contemporaries and have supplied copies of my transcriptions from the original manuscripts to various performing groups who showed interest—and sometimes they were even recorded. While I may have supplied the performance material, I have never interfered in the creative process of the musicians; I like to hear what they find inspiring in this music. So it is a pleasant surprise to see that a few of these works have now been recorded by a young American ensemble, Acronym. It is in that spirit that I listened to this new release; I don’t agree with some of their decisions, but the quality and integrity of their performances can be documented by ARG reviews of their earlier recordings by Catherine Moore and Peter Loewen (Bertali, July/Aug 2014; Pezel, July/Aug 2014; Rosenmüller, May/June 2017; Valentini, Sept/Oct 2015; and a collection, Sept/Oct 2016: 223).

The cover of this release includes the alliterative title “The Battle, the Bethel, & the Ball” which effectively summarizes the musical selections: two sacred motets for soloist, scordatura violin, and continuo (Bethel = House of God), two works with dances (Ball), and at the end Biber’s Battalia. Only two of the compositions (Battalia and ‘Hic est panis’) have direct ascriptions to Biber on the original manuscripts. The remaining five have been over the years suggested to have been written by Biber, but in some cases I think that was only because his music was better known than what had been written by his contemporaries. Still, this new compilation of these works offers very useful aural evidence that will need to be evaluated along with the original manuscripts.

The first work is the Sonata Jucunda a 5 (Delightful or Jesting Sonata), but rather than the more explicit jesting in the Battalia, the composer here was playing with the side-by-side contrasts between carefully composed music and meandering passages in parallel octaves, with occasional hurdy-gurdy or bagpipe-like drones. There is a short passage that “quotes” the frog motive from the Sonata Representativa that has traditionally been attributed to Biber. More recently, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer has been proposed as the composer of the Sonata Representativa, and many of the techniques used in the Sonata Jucunda are also found in Schmelzer’s Polnische Sackpfeifen, which has been recorded by Reinhard Goebel (Mar/Apr 1991: 145) among others, so it seems likely that he also composed this work. This new recording is the first that accurately follows the original manuscript. The three earlier recordings all have small mistakes. Goebel’s Sonata Jucunda was a basically straightforward interpretation, but I think he missed the joke of the octave passages and sometimes called for a soft dynamic instead of a more raucous beer-hall fiddler sound. Jan Willem de Vriend (Challenge 72132, 2004) added a cimbalom to his ensemble, and this player adds extra accompaniments and cadenzas to the music. The most radical interpretation was by Treje Tonnesen, who created a free fantasy loosely based on the original music (Nov/Dec 2017: 235). With Acronym, while I believe some of the tempos could be more effective, they do not try to enhance the humor of this piece; and with the corrections from the original manuscript, there is even more dissonance sometimes, which must have piqued sensitive 17th Century ears. Edwin Huizinga, who performs the violin solo passages, adds a few slides; but he could have allowed himself a little more freedom. Like Mozart’s Musical Joke (K 522), the real joke is written into the music and doesn’t need much help from the performer.

The second work, a Sonatina [con altre arie] (with other dances) for a viola da gamba with continuo, is here attributed to Biber, because Biber was a known player of that instrument before his fame as a violinist developed. The earlier attribution to August Kertzinger, who wrote elaborate parts for gamba in some of his sonatas, is most likely incorrect. A just-as-likely candidate is Gottfried Finger, a local composer of works for gamba who soon left the region of Moravia, worked in London for a period, then returned to Germany. This is a very difficult work, filled with difficult passage work through the range of the bass gamba, and full use of multi-stops of all six strings on the instrument. Jaap ter Linden’s recording was made in a very resonant space (Jan/Feb 2001, on a collection of other pieces attributed to Schmelzer), and Loren Ludwig’s performance sounds more intimate. Both performers have the technical abilities to serve this work well, though Ludwig has a more natural flow in the constantly changing textures. I am wondering why both of these recordings omit the second gigue. Robert Smith (Resonus 10112, 2012) performs only the Sonatina and not the remaining dances.

A few respected scholars have attributed the Ciacona to Biber; I am still skeptical, but it is possible—but it must have been an early work. One early scholar termed this “monstrous” because of its length, and the only previous recording I know, by Anton Steck, (Jan/Feb 2006) is part of a collection of pieces ascribed to Biber, but it is only a “Reader’s Digest” of selected variations. Adrianne Post finds a way to let the variety of her violin part carry over the 124 unchanged repetitions of the ostinato bass in this complete performance. I admire her courage and sensitivity— that she could turn what might have been 17 minutes of technical bowing exercises into engaging music. It might not be to the taste of some readers, and Steck can supply a suitable “light” substitute; but in the course of this work almost every bow stroke known in the 17th Century is demonstrated. This was only to be replaced in the 18th Century by Giuseppe Tartini’s Arte del Arco.

The title page of the original manuscript of the Balettae ad duos choros a 8 originally had Biber’s name, but someone in the 17th Century crossed that out and wrote “Dal Signore Hugi”, about whom nothing is known. There are a number of unusual aspects to this set of dances. The most prominent is that it is written for two ensembles which alternate and combine. The first ‘Aria’ sounds much too fast for a dance, the ‘Courante’ seems a bit slow, and the ‘Sarabande’ much too lively. The concluding ‘Ciacona’ is more like a French chaconne with a rondo form, but the extensive syncopations certainly give this movement a “Slavic” flair. I wish that the syncopations had been stronger; and the returning theme, played by the combined ensembles, should not have been been played soft—this dissipates the energy of the dance. In other similar works the dynamic changes to Forte when separate choirs or ensembles are combined.

The two solo motets, ‘O dulcis Jesu’ for soprano and ‘Hic est panis’ for bass, both are scored for an obligato scordatura violin along with continuo. Biber certainly came to be associated with this technique of retuning the strings of a violin in his 15 so-called Mystery Songs (see our Index for the many recordings), but he wasn’t the only composer to do this. ‘Hic est panis’ names Biber on its title page; and both the bass, effectively sung by Jesse Blumberg, and violin, Karina Schmitz in both motets, have difficult parts to manage. ‘O dulcis Jesu’ is quite similar to ‘Hic est panis’ and could also be by Biber. Molly Quinn has a clear flexible voice that easily traces the complex passagework. Both are reminders of Biber’s skill at sacred vocal music, which was an important part of his duties at Salzburg.

The Battalia is Biber’s most programmatic work, and his authorship is pretty definite. It is most famous for his use of innovative bow techniques, such as col legno (using the wood of the bow) in the first movement, and what has been termed a “Bartok”-pizzicato in the ‘Battle’ to imitate the cannons. II, which imitates the singing of the soldiers in a dissonant quodlibet of songs from several Central European traditions, is a perfect example to confuse party guests, since it sounds like Charles Ives.

I am now familiar with 14 recordings of this work, beginning with Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s first recording in 1966 (DG Archiv). Many are acceptable, but others should be avoided (Tonnesen, mentioned above). For a while my recommendation was Goebel, but recently I enjoyed Philippe Pierlot’s interpretation (Mirare). There are some very effective aspects to this new recording, especially its palpable energy (compare with the more sedate Garry Clarke, July/Aug 2010). For example, in most recordings it sounds as if the string players are being very careful when playing col legno; Acronym bangs on the strings. And the pizzicato dialog between the two “violone” tends to be clear on most recordings, but Acronym makes the strings resonate above the din from the upper strings. In the fife and drum movement, Biber called for a violone player to place a stiff piece of paper on the strings so that it could buzz like a snare drum while a single violin imitates a fife; on this new release there is a much stronger rasp than I’ve heard in other recordings. I do question the addition of an organ playing parallel to the solo violin in the fife and drum movement; it distracts from the sound that Biber was attempting to imitate, and in the repeat of the ‘Battle’ the players of the violone parts eschew Biber’s rhythmic notation and begin a random volley of cannon shots. I was also startled (and that may have been their intent) by a final cannon shot added after the quiet ending of the final movement’s lament. As with any interpretation, some of what I’ve criticized above might also make this new recording more interesting. I have enjoyed listening through this recording more than once, and it would be hard to find any Biber (or pseudo-Biber) that has been better performed.

-Charles Brewer, 4.22.19, American Recording Guide

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