Biber: The Mystery Sonatas


2CD Set

This two disc set of Heinrich von Biber’s Rosary or Mystery Sonatas presents the complete set of fifteen sonatas and the concluding passacaglia which appears in the sole surviving Munich manuscript.

The sonatas each correspond to the fifteen mysteries or meditations on the life of Christ. The meditations are traditionally grouped into three groups of five; Joyful – his early life, Sorrowful – his passion; Glorious – his ressurection.

In writing the sonatas Biber uses scordatura, tuning the strings to a different set of notes for each sonata. This  achieves technical feats impossible with normal tuning and results in different sonorities resulting from the varying amounts of pressure from the strings and achieving the different desired mood for each sonata. For the violinist, this involves a constant contradiction between sight and sound, for what he sees is not be what he hears!

Walter Reiter’s recording of the Mystery Sonatas is the culmination of a seven year labour of love and is in his own words, is his "most powerfully artistic experience to date".


What people are saying

"thoughtful, reflective and poetic …. his performances are stylish, idiomatic and vivid" – Nicholas Anderson, BBC Music Magazine


"a beautifully judged performance" Lindsay Kemp, Gramophone 


"The performances are astounding, the variety of bow strokes, the ornamentation of repeats, the occasional colouring of the violins sound – it’s simply wonderful …. This is my recommendation for the month" – Brian Clarke, Early Music Review


" … there are many extraordinary moments" – Luis Gago, Goldberg

Walter Reiter with Cordaria

Release date:17th Sep 2001
Order code:SIGCD021
Barcode: 635212002124

Early Music Review – December 2001

This is my recommendation for the month. I’m not a great fan for letting myself be absorbed in music, but it was difficult not to hear some sort of religious message in this fantastic playing. Every note, every phrase took on some deep meaning. The performances (on a purely technical level) are astounding: the variety of bow strokes (which Biber demands), the ornamentation of repeats, the occasional colouring of the violin’s sound (when the music is portraying something like fluttering wings, for example) – it’s simply wonderful. The continuo section includes organ, theorbo, harp, harpsichord, gamba, cello, lirone and regal, and produces an impressive range of "accompaniments", if such a term must be used.! I shall listen to this many times in the next few weeks, if only to remind myself to never to scrape through these wonderful pieces ever again!

Brian Clarke

MusicWeb – May 2002

The ‘Mystery Sonatas’ consist of 15 short suites for violin and continuo whose inspiration lies in the so-called 15 mysteries of the Virgin Mary; effectively 15 meditations which are sometimes directly programmatic and sometimes more elusive. They divide into three groups of five. The Joyful Mysteries are based on episodes in Jesus’s early life, the Nativity for example; the middle group are the Sorrowful Mysteries like ‘The Crown of Thorns’ etc; and the final group are the Glorious Mysteries which continue the story from the Resurrection to the Assumption and then to the Coronation of the Virgin. The whole work is capped off by a grand unaccompanied Passacaglia for Violin. The whole sequence lasts about two hours and a quarter and is therefore on two discs.

Biber composed these works for Archbishop Max Gandolph. Peter Holman tells us that “Biber pointed out in his dedication that Max Gandolph was strongly in favour of the Rosary in Salzburg”. Also we learn that “the cycle was used in the traditional Rosary devotions in September and October … and the faithful as they walked in procession would have listened to appropriate biblical passages and commentaries and to Biber’s music whilst meditating of their Rosaries”. The manuscript also contains fifteen elegant roundels, which were relevant to the subject of each sonata. Nine of these have been reprinted in black and white and are scattered around the booklet. There is also a musical quotation from the Sonata XI and the violin tunings needed for each sonata are given. Some are quite extraordinary. But what makes these sonatas virtuoso compositions for the performer and (I am sure for the composer) is that once re-tuned the notation remains as usual, to correspond with the continuo harmony. This technique is called Scordatura and many violinists dread it. Walter Reiter appears undaunted and unflappable, more so than any other player I have ever heard. The reason for some of these tunings is quite obvious and indeed programmatic. For example the beautiful ‘Ascension’ sonata has a C major tuning, g-c-g-d. Contrast that with the 9th Sonata ‘Jesus carries his own cross’ in A minor, tuned to straining point c-e-a-e in other words raised a 4th giving a rather strangled effect.

Apart from these unique sets of tunings there are other programmatic elements in the music. The ‘Resurrection’ sonata is the only one in one continuous and untitled movement. It begins in total stillness – the dawn of Easter Morning. The free recitativic tempo gradually builds so that in the brightness of the morning sun the empty tomb is displayed. Then enters, at first quietly, the Easter Chorale melody ‘Surrexit Christus Hodie’. Incidentally the tuning in this sonata is so odd that the effect is literally unearthly. In the ‘Ascension’ sonata the violinist is expected with his terrifically difficult double stoppings to imitate a choir of trumpets in the ‘Aria tubicinium’.

In the ‘Crucifixion’ sonata the rending of the veil over ‘the holy of holies’ is vividly portrayed.

Most of the sonatas have several movements and several have dance titles. Some have Aria’s followed by Variations. Dances include ‘Allmans’ and ‘Correntes’ which are slipped curiously into movements like ‘The Visitation’ sonata (Track 5) and the ‘Nativity’ sonata (Track 8). Presumably on the grounds of ‘why should the devil have the best tunes?’

Praise cannot be too high for Cordaria. For me this is quite simply the best recording of this music I have ever heard. Credit should go of course to Walter Reiter. Timothy Roberts on the chamber organ or harpsichord and Elizabeth Kenny on the theorbo along with Joanna Levine on the gamba with Frances Kelly, a very experienced influence, on the harp and Mark Levey on a Lirone make a ‘dream team’.

Their blend, sensitivity and recorded balance are always immaculate, beautiful and at times tear-jerking. Highly recommended.

Gary Higginson

Gramophone, March 2002

Biber’s 15 mysteries of meditations divide into three cycles of five according to mood, and many vividly portray events in the life of Christ. Walter Reiter interprets them with intelligence, style and imaginative sensibilty to the underlying subject matter, exploiting their scordetura tunings to excellent effect. He is admirably supported by a continuo group whose constitution offers striking variety of texture and colour.

Highlights of the five Joyful Mysteries, based on episodes in Jesus’s early life, include the intimate repose of no.3 (The Nativity) and the sharply constrasted ciacona of no.4. The Sorrowful Mysteries focus on episodes in the Passion, from the Sweating of Blood to the Crucifixion. The lamenging of the Sixth Sonata is meaningfully conveyed. More powerful, though, are Reiter’s grief-stricken utterances and scourging bow strokes in the Proeladium of no.10 (The Crucifixion) and the ensulag binary Aria with variations. He realises the two-voiced texture of the Adagio most thoughtfully and evokes imaginatively the earthquake that followed Christ’s death.

The Glorious Mysteries continue the story from the Resurrection to the Assumption of the Virgin and the Coronation of the Virgin. Reiter conveys most sensitively the unearthly sonority of no.11 (The Resurrection), with its Easter plainsong hymn. Striking, too, are his trumpet imitations in no.12. representing Christ’s ascent to heaven, and his sparse, hushed opening of no.13, contrasted with rapid swirling thirds (sometimes sud ponticello) depicting the ‘rushing, mighty wind’ of Pentecost. The ensuing dances are stylishly rendered, the Gavotte especially imaginatively ornamented. The emotions of the last two sonatas range from the fervent joy of no.14’s Aria with variations to the quasi-folk fiddle impression of its final Gigue and the serene Sorabande of no. 15. Reiter rounds off the set by playing the unaccompanied Passacaglia with artistry, substantal accuracy and utter conviction.

Robin Stowell

Goldberg, Autumn 2001

Biber’s Rosary Sonatas encompass an entire field of experimentation for any violinist. Each sonata requires a different scordatura, some of which are almost impossible, such as that of the Sonata no. 11 (‘Christ’s Resurrection’). On the one hand, these alternative tunings generate substantial difficulties with regard to fingering, and on the other, they open up possibilities of unisons and chords that are simply impossible to play with conventional tuning. But here, the technique of scordatura, far from being an objective in itself, is used to serve Biber’s exceptional music, which is full of symbols closely linked to the biblical episodes that illustrate each sonata. These are grouped into joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries. In recent decades this repertory has been approached from very different angles by some of the most important baroque violinists. These run from Franz Josef Maier’s historical version (EMI) to Marianne Ronez’s little known, but far from negligible, version (Winter&Winter), as well as those by Reinhard Goebel (Archiv) and John Holloway (Virgin). Biber’s music leaves many doors open to the performer, beginning with obvious choices such as the instruments used for the continuo and constant decisions relating to the ornamentation, the execution of numerous polyphonic passages or the best way in which to convey the work’s symbolism. Walter Reiter, an experienced violinist, has made a decisive approach to these sonatas, which sound more secular than sacred in his hands. The most debateable feature of this version is the playing of chords. Their sound is somewhat uneven and they are often badly inserted into longer phrases. Nevertheless, there are many extraordinary moments, such as the Lament from the Sonata no. 6.

Luis Gago

  1. Sonata no. 1 (The Annunciation) – Praeludium – – [2:56]
  2. – Variatie – – [2:26]
  3. – untitled – – [1:29]
  4. Sonata no. 2 (The Visitation) – untitled – – [1:35]
  5. – Allaman – – [2:13]
  6. – Presto – – [0:48]
  7. Sonata no. 3 (The Nativity) – untitled – – [1:59]
  8. – Courente – – [2:54]
  9. – Adagio – – [2:24]
  10. Sonata no. 4 (The Presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple) – Ciacona – – [8:59]
  11. Sonata no. 5 (The Twelve-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple) – Praeludium – – [1:36]
  12. – Allaman – – [1:22]
  13. – Gigue – – [1:07]
  14. – Saraban – – [2:11]
  15. Sonata no. 6 (Christ on the Mount of Olives) – Lamento – – [9:56]
  16. Sonata no. 7 (The Scourging at the Pillar) – Allamanda – – [3:31]
  17. – Sarab: Variatio – – [5:15]
  18. Sonata no. 8 (The Crown of Thorns) – untitled – – [3:23]
  19. – Gigue & Double Presto, Double – – [4:26]
  20. Sonata no. 9 Jesus carries the cross – untitled – – [3:02]
  21. – Courente, Double – – [3:45]
  22. – Finale – – [1:49]
  23. Sonata no. 10 (The Crucifixion) – Praeludium – – [1:26]
  24. – Aria – – [1:46]
  25. – Variatio – – [5:25]
  26. – Variatio – – [2:07]
  27. Sonata no. 11 (The Resurrection) – untitled – – [10:45]
  28. Sonata no. 12 (The Ascension) – Intrada – – [0:48]
  29. – Aria Tubicinum – – [1:26]
  30. – Allamanda – – [2:03]
  31. – Courente – –
  32. Sonata no. 13 (Pentecost) – untitled – – [5:01]
  33. – Gavott – – [1:46]
  34. – Gigue – – [1:35]
  35. – Sarabanda – – [0:55]
  36. Sonata no. 14 (The Assumption of the Virgin) – untitled – – [3:56]
  37. – Aria, Aria, Gigue – – [6:34]
  38. Sonata no. 15 (The Beatification of the Virgin) – untitled – – [1:40]
  39. – Aria – – [4:45]
  40. – Canzon – – [1:43]
  41. – Sarabanda – – [2:16]
  42. Passacaglia – – [10:55]