Biber: Missa Christi resurgentis

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The English Concert
& The Choir of The English Concert

Andrew Manze (vln & dir.)
(Harmonia Mundi USA, 09/2005)
HMU 907397

During the summer and autumn of 2004—the tercentenary of Biber’s death in Salzburg—the English Concert and Andrew Manze performed the Missa Christi resurgentis in France, Belgium, Holland, Spain and the UK. [1] The concerts received critical acclaim everywhere, and now they have issued their eagerly awaited recording of the mass—indeed, the first ever recording—with Harmonia Mundi USA, and it lives up to all expectations. Containing a generous 77.34 minutes of recorded sound, including the mass and a variety of instrumental pieces by Biber (and one by his younger contemporary Heinrich Schmelzer) interspersed between the movements of the mass as was customary in services in late seventeenth century Salzburg Cathedral.

The Missa Christi resurgentis (1673–74)—written for double choir (with an extra ‘Basso tertio in concerto’), strings and winds (with two trumpets)—is one of Biber’s first mass settings, and exudes confidence and exuberance from the start. That is not to say that it is lacking in moments of profundity, most notable are the ‘misere nobis’ settings (in the Gloria), and the ‘Crucifixus’ (Credo) and the Agnus Dei. Much of the music is on a grand scale, envisaged for performance in Salzburg Cathedral with its four organ galleries where performers would have been positioned during special services using concerted mass settings involving voices and instruments.

This recording was made in the autumn of 2004 in London’s Temple Church—a venue rather different to Salzburg Cathedral, but (as Manze says) ‘has as voluminous an acoustic’. For the recording, the four groups (choir I, choir II, strings, winds) were positioned at the four corners of the square in order to create the impression of Salzburg Cathedral’s polyphonic grandeur whilst retaining clarity. This comes across well in the recording with choir I and the strings sounding on the left of the sound picture and choir II and winds on the right which is perfect for those passages in which the groupings are working in antiphony (in the Kyrie, for example).

Such a device is used at the start of the Gloria in which one can clearly imagine solo singers duetting across the crossing in Salzburg Cathedral. The rhythmic verve of the ‘Laudamus te’ gives way to a dynamic rendition of the ‘Gratias agimus tibi’ in which the rasping sounds of the trombones comes through most impressively. Harmonia mundi have quite sensibly allowed the music to continue attacca into the ‘Domine Deus’, a musical antithesis of the ‘Gratias agimus tibi’, and where we here the perfectly blending soprano voices of Natalie Clifton-Griffith and Grace Davidson duetting, thankfully, not for the only time in this mass. In this section we also hear the dulcet tones of the two cornetts (here superbly played by Jeremy West and Fiona Russell). Cornetts, often remarked upon for their vocal quality, are frequently paired up with soprano soloists by Biber in this mass. Frances Bourne (alto) creates a real sense of magic with her rich solo voice and stunning breath control in the mesmerising ‘Quoniam tu solus’, before the full ensemble brings the movement to a close with a rapid (‘prestissimo’) Amen, articulated with full attack.

Often the most interesting music in any mass setting comes in the Credo, and Biber does not disappoint. Opening with the rich sounds of (unusually) three solo basses, the music leads into a section using blocks of antiphonal sound being thrown from one small group of singers to another. A truly ethereal moment in this mass is when the mass of activity of the ‘descendit de ceolis’ stops still for the ‘Et incarnatus est’ which is set on one long A minor chord. A simple device, but at the same time a stroke of genius preparing the way for the most important part of the creed, the ‘Crucifixus’, which is probably the most beautiful setting of this text by Biber in any of his masses, and performed here by the English Concert with the utmost degree of subtlety—it is clear they really understand the music. The three solo basses (Richard Fallas, Robert Macdonald and Stuart MacIntyre) sing the ‘Et resurrexit’—perhaps a surprising scoring, but it is an equally good way of drawing attention to this text which is so central to Christian doctrine as the more traditional trumpets and drums would have been. Before the final Amen, the three basses sing the ‘Et vitam venturi’ over a ground bass (one of Biber’s favourite devices in his instrumental music) and perhaps used here to suggest the life everlasting. The two violins duet above this texture, and it provides an opportunity to get a glimpse of Biber the violin virtuoso trying to get to the surface (played here by Andrew Manze and Walter Reiter with their usual flair).

Even if you hate the music of Biber, you should buy this disc for the brief (4:40 mins) yet sumptuous sonata by Schmelzer, which is recorded here between the Credo and the Sanctus. It is a stunning piece, full of rich sonorities, astounding cornett playing and moments of extreme excitement for the whole ensemble (trumpets, cornetts, trombones and bass). It has been recorded before (Musica Florea [with violins instead of cornetts!] and Musica Fiata, for examples) but the English Concert have produced what is without doubt the best recording currently available.

Biber’s Sanctus is a lively affair, performed here with very crisp rhythms. The English Concert take the ‘Pleni sunt coeli’—set here by Biber at his most subtle for the entire ensemble in homophony (!)—at an impressive lick, as indeed they do in the Hosanna. The real gem of this movement is the Benedictus which is for solo alto (Bourne) duetting with violin 1 (Manze) over a shimmering string sound (violin 2 and violas), which is beautifully performed giving a intensity to this profound text.

As in the English Concert’s performances of this mass, Manze places Sonata XI from Biber’s set of 12 sonatas Fidicinium sacro-profanum (1682) immediately before the Agnus Dei. In C minor—Biber’s key of lamentation—this work is one of his most moving and profound pieces for string consort. It is expertly performed here with exciting string playing by the English Concert who throughout demonstrate their understanding of Biber’s musical rhetoric with a mixture of pathos and feeling of immediacy and intensity. One is emotionally drained by the end of this sonata, but still has to face the intensity of the Agnus Dei—a masterstroke of programming. Indeed, one can hear five sonatas from Biber’s 1682 set, all performed here with a combination of real flair and sensitivity. Sonata I is particularly impressive.

In the opening Agnus Dei Biber piles one suspension on top of another quite relentlessly as the choir build to the ‘misere nobis’, taken here at a suitably respectful tempo as Manze squeezes every last drop of emotion from the choir. The second Agnus begins in the same way as the three bass soloists slide chromatically at ‘peccata mundi: misere nobis’. A brief instrumental interlude reminiscent of the opening Sonata leads to the third Agnus (two tenors and bass one) and the inevitable ‘dona nobis pacem’ where there is more activity, if at a stately (yet appropriate) tempo.

This disc is also a real treat for trumpeters. Apart from the prominence of trumpet writing in the Missa Christi resurgentis and in the Schmelzer, the mass is introduced and prefixed by two fanfares for two trumpets which were published with Biber’s Sonatae tam aris quam aulis servientes (1676) and are not currently available on record. These may have been used here to announce the arrival and departure of the archbishop before and after mass, and are recorded here (performed by Mark Bennett and Michael Harrison) from the galleries in the Temple Church as they may have been performed from the organ galleries in Salzburg Cathedral, and the resultant acoustic is in evidence in the recording. Furthermore, the disc includes the ca. 1673 manuscript sonata for solo trumpet and strings performed here with real panache by Bennett, and with solo, improvisatory-like sections for the two violins (Manze, and Walter Reiter).

Over the last ten to fifteen years most of Biber’s masses have been recorded (some more than once). This recording is the world premiere recording of a relatively early mass by Biber, yet despite this, the style of the music, the high quality of the recording (and packaging), and wonderful performances by the English Concert make it a most welcome and long overdue contribution to the discography, ranking up with the best of the recordings of Biber’s vocal works to date—all in all, a real treat.

© James Clements 04/2005

New York Collegium - Andrew Parrott - Missa Christi resurgentis disc. Click for larger image

The New York Collegium
Andrew Parrott (dir.)
(Kleos Classics, 05/2005)

The New York Collegium gave a fine concert of the Missa Christi resurgentis in April 2003 in New York, and they recorded the mass during the week following the concert. For whatever reason, it has taken two years for the CD to be released commercially. [2] The performance differs in a number of ways to Manze's (see above). For example, more than one voice/instrument is used per part, boys are used for the solo parts rather than women (although women are used for the ripieno parts (!)), and the movements of the mass are built around a kind of service, using contemporary chant. Whilst these are historically correct (with the exception of combining boys and womens voices), they do impact on the overall quality of the final product. The larger forces result in a rather sluggish performance; at times it sounds is if Parrott is having to coax his singers through the music. Sadly, and much to my disappointment, the boys (selected from the American Boys' Choir) lack the power—and not infrequently the requisite intonation and rhythmic accuracy—of the other voices, resulting in a rather unbalanced sound picture. Of course this could be a result of (or have been corrected by) the recording. The depth of emotional understanding of the music portrayed by The Choir of The English Concert is not in evidence here, unfortunately. Diction is often very unclear. I am not sure if this is the fault of the singers or the recording engineers, but something has caused hardly a single 's' to be audible in the 'Quoniam tu solus santus' in the Gloria.

Tempi are often sluggish and too legato for my liking (note especially the 'Qui tollis' and 'Suscipe' in the Gloria both of which really drag). There is often no breathing space between sections of the movements of the mass, and everything is performed at much the same tempo, making it sound like one long trek. The result is that the wonderful sense of drama which is so important in the text of the mass (which Manze achieved with the The English Concert) is absent.

I've never been convinced about chant being recorded on CD's in an attempt to evoke a particular performance context, particularly as this recording is not attempting to reconstruct a particular service, merely a hypothetical one. It is one thing performing chant in church as part of a service or in a concert, but when it is recorded on a CD to be listened to in the music room or the lounge, it is hard to see how this better represents 'the effect a concerted mass setting has within its liturgical context' as the sleeve note writer claims. Furthermore, it would have been of great help to the listener if a translation of the chant had been included in the CD sleeve notes (rather than just a translation of the text of the mass from Latin into English). Notwithstanding this, the plainchant is sung splendidly on the disc by Vincent Metallo.

The most positive aspect of this recording is the performance of the instrumentalists, which is of a very high standard. Particularly stylish are a number of the violin solos and also Ingrid Matthews's performance of Mystery Sonata XI ('The Resurrection'). The recording also offers a dramatic interpretation (the first recorded?) of Stadlmayr's Resurrexi á 5, which is rather an exciting piece.

One particular feature of this recording is the SACD technology it uses. It is a hybrid format (i.e. two independent data streams), meaning that it can be played on both SACD players (which not many people in the UK seem to own) and on conventional CD players. (Perhaps SACD players are more common in the US?) I had hoped that the often muffled sound (particularly in the fuller moments) was as a result of me playing the disc on conventional CD players, but using a SACD player didn't seem to solve the problem, unfortunately. Presumably because of the hybrid format of the CD, two of the conventional CD players I tried playing this disc on had real problems finding the next track when skipping forwards, and would often freeze. This is not a bad performance, just not a very exciting or polished one (with a certain amount of technical faults as outlined above). I don't think, however, that the recording method has helped at all.

On a final note, I'd like to query a few points in the sleeve notes. I'd be very keen to know why the sleeve note writer (Robert Mealy) believes that 'judging from his [Biber's] Latin prefaces, he had received an excellent Jesuit education; they are filled with sophisticated plays on words and extended metaphors.' They are indeed replete with rhetorical devices, although this doesn't suggest an exclusively Jesuit education in itself [3]. Mealy also uses the word 'cubicularis' to describe Biber's initial position in Salzburg when he in fact means 'cubicularius'. The edition of the mass was published by 'AR-Editions' not 'A & R Editions' as is written on the back cover of the CD.

I would be very keen to receive independent views about these two recordings from anyone who has not been involved with either of them. I think that had this been the only recording available I may not have been nearly so critical.

For more information about this disc and the New York Collegium see

© James Clements 08/2005

[1] In all fairness, it has to be said that the author of this review may be showing just a tiny amount of bias given that he edited the first edition of this wonderful work (published by AR-Editions), assisted the English Concert with their project to give their excellent performances (with the author’s concert programme notes), and wrote some sleeve notes for this fantastic CD, but don’t let that put you off!

[2] Although technically the first recording of the mass to be made, it landed on my desk two months after the recording produced by the English Concert despite me making a constant nuisance of myself enquiring about the recording to the director and the chief executive of the orchestra! I suppose it is academic as to which of these two recordings is the world premiere, as they will both go down as 2005 in catalogues and discographies. In the end recordings get judged on the performance and the recording quality rather than which month they were released in.

[3] See chapters 1-2 of my PhD ('Aspects of the Ars rhetorica in the Violin Music of Heinrich Biber 1644-1704' (U. of London, 2002) for an exploration of Biber's links with the Jesuits, possibility of a Jesuit education and an analysis of the rhetoric and meaning of his Latin and German dedications.