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Sonatae tam aris, quam aulis servientes

'Biber: Sonatae tam aris, quam aulis' (CDH55041)
Biber: Sonatae tam aris, quam aulis
Buy by post £5.50 CDH55041  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
No 01: Sonata in C
No 02: Sonata in D
No 03: Sonata in G minor
No 04: Sonata in C
No 05: Sonata in E minor
No 06: Sonata in F
No 07: Sonata in C
No 08: Sonata in G
No 09: Sonata in B flat
No 10: Sonata in G minor
No 11: Sonata in A
No 12: Sonata in C

Sonatae tam aris, quam aulis servientes
Sonatae tam aris, quam aulis servientes (‘Sonatas as much for the altar as for the table’—i.e., sacred and secular) was issued in parts by the Salzburg publisher J B Mayr and was dedicated to Biber’s employer, the Prince-Archbishop Maximilian Gandolph, Count Khüenberg. Nine of its twelve sonatas are also found in manuscript in the Kromeríz court collection, and this has led to speculation that they at least were written before Biber left Kromeríz, though it could equally be that he sent manuscripts of his work from Salzburg to his former employer. Certainly it looks as if the collection was planned as a set of twelve, perhaps for performance in sequence at the Salzburg court.

The sonatas are admirably varied in key, mood and scoring, and they open and close with impressive works using the full ensemble. Biber’s model, both for the collection as a whole and for some of the individual sonatas, appears to have been Schmelzer’s Sacro-profanus concentus musicus of 1662. Like Schmelzer, Biber writes for a maximum ensemble of two trumpets with six-part strings, and both composers also use smaller combinations such as two violins, two violas, bass and continuo, and two violins, three violas, bass and continuo. Like Schmelzer, too, Biber divides his sonatas roughly into those, like Nos I, II, XI and XII, that are basically contrapuntal, and those, like Nos V, VI, VIII and IX, that mix counterpoint with an idiom derived from dance music. Both types, in fact all the sonatas in the collection save one, are cast in a form that can be likened to a patchwork quilt, with a number of sharply contrasted sections within a single movement. Sometimes Biber appears to be trying to push this patchwork technique to the limit, as in Sonata IX where the listener is taken through a kaleidoscopic series of eleven time-changes in under one hundred bars. Biber also follows Schmelzer in often constructing his sonatas like a chain: sections tend to have something in common with their neighbours—a rhythm or a fleeting turn of phrase perhaps—but the common material changes as the sonata progresses. In this respect, Biber’s counterpoint has more in common with the sixteenth-century fantasy than the eighteenth-century fugue. The one sonata in the collection that is not in the patchwork form is No VII, a set of variations over a walking ground bass for two trumpets in dialogue with two violins. Austrian solo violin sonatas were often constructed over ground basses, but consort works of this type are very rare.

Whoever they were written for, the Sonatae tam aris are virtuoso works requiring an accomplished ensemble. Its first trumpeter, for instance, has to be able to play florid music not only in the traditional C major, but also in the unusual key (unusual, that is, for a natural trumpet) of G minor. The work in question, Sonata X, was probably inspired by the famous Kromeríz trumpeter Pavel Vejvanovský, who also wrote a trumpet sonata in G minor. Apparently Vejvanovský had mastered the art of lipping the flat seventh harmonic (b' flat) into tune and obtaining the non-harmonic tone e'' flat so as to be able to play in G minor on a normal C trumpet. Biber’s string parts, too, are much more difficult than those found in the general run of five- and six-part consort music at the time, though they do not use chordal writing or scordatura. In particular, Biber seems to write about a fourth higher than normal for both violins and violas. In Sonata XI the violins ascend constantly to e''' while the violas reach a'', creating a most brilliant effect.

from notes by Peter Holman © 2000

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