Friday 5 March 2021

An intimate & private piece: Heinrich Biber's Requiem in a superb new account from Vox Luminis & Freiburg Barockconsort on Alpha

Biber Requiem; Vox Luminis, Freiburger Barockconsort, Lionel Meunier; Alpha
Biber Requiem; Vox Luminis, Freiburger Barockconsort, Lionel Meunier; Alpha

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 2 March 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (
Biber's Requiem is the focus of a finely crafted programme of music by German-speaking composers influenced by the Italian Baroque

To say that Biber's Requiem in F minor is one of his most famous sacred compositions, as the booklet note on a new recording of the work does, is frankly not saying a lot at all. Whilst Biber is famed for his Mystery Sonatas and the Battaglia, his sacred music remains somewhat elevated and distant. There are a number of recordings of Biber's sacred works, including the Requiem and the huge Missa Salisburgensis but none of them are really familiar. So having a new disc of the work, sensitively performed, is more than welcome.
On this new disc from Alpha Classics, Vox Luminis (artistic director Lionel Meunier) and the Freiburger Barockconsort perform Biber's Requiem in F minor, C 8, alongside Christoph Bernhard's motets Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener and Tribularer si nescirem, Johann Joseph Fux’s motet Omnis Terra Adoret, and instrumental sonatas from Fux and from Johann Michael Nicolai.

The forces used are quite small, 12 singers (six sopranos, two counter-tenors, two tenors and two basses) and 14 instrumentalists (two violins, two violas, one viola da gamba, two cornets, three trombones,  dulcian, violone, lute and organ). This is intimate music, practical in terms of forces and size.

We don't know when Biber's Requiem was written or for whom, but from the performance here we can imagine it in use not for a grand Archiepiscopal occasion (from 1670 Biber worked for the Archbishop of Salzburg) but for something more intimate and private.

The composers on the disc, at first sight, have no obvious links bar the fact that all four made their careers in parts of the (admitedly rather disparate) Holy Roman Empire. But in his booklet note, Lionel Meunier suggests that all were influenced not just by Renaissance polyphony but by contemporary Italian music, what we call Baroque music. 

We begin with two motets by Christoph Bernhard, born by the Baltic he worked mainly in Hamburg and Dresden. One work is in German, the other in Latin, reflecting the Lutheran church's continued use of Latin for some occasions. Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener ('Lord lettest now thy servant depart in peace') is huge, 13 minutes long, starting with a sober instrumental introduction, and then leading us to the voices who weave in and out of each other, sombre but striking. It is based around two choirs, with instruments doubling the voices and solo moments too. There is liveliness in the some of the vocal and instrumental details, a wonderful and thoughtful work. Tribularer si nescirem is shorter and uses far more intense, chromatic harmony to striking effect, with a contrasting homophonic ending.

Next comes an instrumental sonata by Johann Michael Nicolai, a Thuringian who ended up working at the court in Stuttgart. The sonata, with its alternation of fast and slow movements is Italian inspired and features some delightful string writing, particularly the way the two violins dialogue both with each other and with the other strings. The music comes from an instrumental collection assembled in 1662 to celebrate Duke August II of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel's 83rd birthday.

Biber's Requiem follows. Biber was in fact born in Bohemia and his early career was there. A noted violinist, his employer sent him to Innsbruck to negotiate with a famous luthier; Biber never made it and instead he pitched up in the employ of the Archbishop of Salzburg! The Requiem has seven movements, Introit: Requiem in aeternam, Kyrie, Dies Irae, Offertorium, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Communio.

The Introit is wonderfully focused and sober, alternating choir with solo moments (both single soloists and groups). And throughout this flexibility of line-up is noticeable, large-scale polyphony flows into smaller solo moments. The Dies Irae begins with a big choral statement enlivened by instrumental detail. As might be expected, there is a significant lead violin part, perhaps we can imagine Biber directing the work from the violin and there are some delightful instrumental moments. Though this is a serious work, not everything is dark and sombre, the Dies Irae includes passages of almost delightful instrumental and vocal detail. It is interesting to note that Biber despatches his Dies Irae text expeditiously, the movement lasts a little over 8 minutes. The Agnus Dei starts deep and dark and then voices enter one by one, in civilised polyphonic style, with the suggestion of a ground bass in the instruments, and the movement leads directly into the Communio, ending the work on serene note.

The recording makes the most of the varied colours available to Biber, so that voices, strings and wind play an equal role in proceedings, the voices are part of the ensemble rather than dominating, which makes for some glorious textures and for me a very seductive feel. This is an intimate and quite civilised work, I could imagine no finer idea than having my funeral celebrated with it, which makes us even more curious as to when, why and for whom Biber wrote it.

Finally two works by Johann Joseph Fux, a native of Styria who worked mainly in Vienna. First comes the instrumental sonata, full of lively detail for both wind and strings, then comes his motet Omnis Terra Adoret which seems to have been imbued with the spirit of Italian music.

This isn't one of those discs which comes out an hits you. Instead it is thoughtfully conceived and beautifully performed, so that an intriguing and highly satisfying programme is performed with style and intelligence.

Christoph Bernhard (1628-1692) - Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener
Christoph Bernhard - Tribularer si nescirem
Johann Michael Nicolai - Sonata a 6 in A minor
Heinrich Biber (1644-1704) - Requiem in F minor, C 8
Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1771) - Sonata a 4 in G minor
Johann Joseph Fux - Omnis Terra Adoret
Vox Luminis
Freiburger Barockconsort
Lionel Meunier (artistic director)
Recorded February 2019, Eglise de St Jean l'Evangeliste, Beaufays, Belgium
ALPHA CLASSICS Alpha665 1CD [72.08]

Available from Hive.

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