If there is anything more difficult than trying to decide between all of
the various recordings of the Bach solo violin set, it would have to be
choosing a set of Heinrich Biber's Mystery Sonatas (C. 90-105). But
the problem here is not that of having to wade through a number of
well-respected but pretty much uninspiring recordings like the Bach;
the problem with the Biber work is choosing amongst a number of very
good recordings. I finally chose the performance by John Holloway due
to a very level-headed review by A. B. Crockett on Amazon.
I first ran into the Mystery Sonatas back in the 70s, but until now have
never owned a recording of them. These are amazing sonatas (technically
speaking they are really a collection of sonatas and suites), perhaps
the first truly great set of sonatas for the violin. With their heavy use of
double and triple stops combined with scordatura (alternate tuning) they
are about the equivalent for violin of what LSD is to normal prescription
medication. Although programmed around the orthodoxal sacred mysteries
of the Rosary, there is little tone-painting involved in these pieces — or
at least no more than a typical cantata by Bach. These are primarily virtuoso
pieces for violin, the Paganini Caprices of their day, and from a performance
point of view seem to have more to do with Hell than anything from Heaven.
But fortunately, the listener only gets the latter of those experiences.
They are one of the great compositions of the early Baroque era.
Early manuscript of the Sonatas from the Bavarian State
Library c. 1678. Next to the image is noted the alternate
tuning of Ab-Eb-G-D.