Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber
Violin Sonatas (Nuremberg, 1681)
Lina Tur Bonet, Musica Alchemica

Media Review

2024-02-29 — Original posting

Biber, Violin Sonatas 1681 — Lina Tur Bonet (CD cover)
Biber, Violin Sonatas 1681 — Lina Tur Bonet (CD cover)

Table of Contents


I have posted favorable reviews of recording of two Beethoven Violin Sonatas (Sonata No.9 in A major, op.47, and Sonata No.10 in G major, op.96) featuring the Spanish violinist Lina Tur Bonet and the Romanian fortepianist Aurelia Vişovan (*1990). Based on that review (I assume), Lina Tur Bonet invited me to review her recent recording with violin sonatas by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644 – 1704). An opportunity that I could hardly resist. Though, it took me well over a year to find the time for this review.

The Composer: Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644 – 1704)

The Bohemian-Austrian composer and violinist Heinrich Ignaz Franz (von) Biber was born in Stráž pod Ralskem, a village in Northern Bohemia (now Czech Republic). Little is known about his youth, other than that he may have studied at a Jesuit Gymnasium at Troppau in Bohemia, where he may have received musical education by a local organist.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (source: Wikimedia; public domain)
Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber

Up till 1668 he was employed at the court of Prince Johann Seyfried von Eggenberg in Graz. Biber then worked for the Bishop of Olomouc, Karl II von Liechtenstein-Kastelkorn, in Kroměříž. When he was sent to Absam, near Innsbruck, he grabbed the opportunity to escape to Salzburg, where was employed by the Archbishop. Biber spent the rest of his life in that location. He gained a high reputation as violinist and composer, starting to publish his works in 1676. By the time of his death in 1704, Biber was known as the leading violinist in Europe. In 1692, Biber was appointed steward by the Archbishop, and he then received his Coat of arms (hence the “von” in his name).

Biber’s Oeuvre

Biber’s compositions largely fall into two main categories. For one, there are vocal compositions: church music (at least 10 masses, several smaller sacred compositions), operas and cantatas (mostly lost). Then, there is a substantial body of chamber music, especially music for violin and continuo. In that latter category, the currently most well-known works are the Mystery (Rosary) Sonatas (15 sonatas and a Passacaglia, now listed as C.90 – C.105). Also important: the 8 Sonatae violino solo, published 1681 in Nuremberg, now listed as C.138 – C.145, the main works in the featured CD.

Biber did not list / register his works using opus numbers. Rather, the compositions are now typically referred to using “C.” and “C App.” numbers, which are references to the Catalog of Heinrich Biber’s Works (and its appendix for lost works and compositions with contested authorship), published by Eric Thomas Chafe in “The Church Music of Heinrich Biber“, see (Chafe, 1975/1987, pp. 233–264).


One key feature in Biber’s violin music is the frequent use of scordatura, i.e., the use of non-standard tuning, i.e., the strings are not tuned g – d’ – a’ – e”, but according to a scheme specified by the composer. The most prominent example for this are the Mystery (Rosary) Sonatas, where each of the 15 sonatas uses a different, individual scordatura. Biber uses scordatura to allow for unusual sonorities, and for polyphony / multi-stop chords that would be impossible to achieve using the standard tuning. For more information see the comments on the Sonata in D major, C.141.

Scordatura is used in some of the sonatas discussed below, namely the Sonata in D major, C.141, the Sonata in C minor, C.143 (one movement only), and the sonatas in G minor, C.66 and in C minor, C.68 (for two violins and two viole d’amore, respectively).

The Artists

Lina Tur Bonet

For simplicity, let me just quote Lina Tur Bonet’s biographic information from my earlier review.

A few years ago, the Spanish violinist and conductor Lina Tur Bonet has started a steep career—first and primarily as baroque violinist on historic instruments. She appeared and recorded as chamber musician and soloist with a vast array of prominent artists. She also has performed in notable orchestras, and on top of that she has been concertmaster in numerous baroque formations all over Europe. Moreover, she also pursues a career as conductor, and she has founded her own chamber ensemble, Musica Alchemica. For full details see the artist’s biography. While she focuses on baroque music, her repertoire is actually much broader—her discography also included Music of the classical period (see above), also music by Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945).

Musica Alchemica

For the featured CD recording (recorded in Antequera, Spain, in October 2021), Lina Tur Bonet of course worked with her own ensemble, Musica Alchemica, in the following configuration:

  • Lina Tur Bonet, baroque violin & viola d’amore (*) & direction
    Violin by Don Nicolò Amati (1662 – 1752), Bologna, c.1740
  • Valerio Losito, viola d’amore (*)
    1775 viola d’amore by Ferdinando Gagliano (c.1724 – c.1795), Naples
  • Ronald Martín Alonso, viola da gamba
  • Andrew Ackerman, violone & double bass
  • Ramiro Morales, lute
  • Jadran Duncumb, theorbo
  • Sara Águeda, baroque double harp (Davidsharfe)
  • Adrià Gràcia, harpsichord & organ
    2008 positive organ by Abraham Martínez, Sevilla (not a replica, but following the construction principles of baroque positive organs).

(*): only in the Partia VII in C minor, C.68, see below.

Lina Tur Bonet / Musica Alchemica — “Biber Violin Sonatas (Nuremberg, 1681)”

Biber, Violin Sonatas 1681 — Lina Tur Bonet (CD cover)

Biber Violin Sonatas (Nuremberg, 1681)

Lina Tur Bonet, Musica Alchemica

Note 1 Music / Glossa GCD 924701 (CD stereo, ℗ / © 2022)
Booklet: 32 pp., en/fr/de/es

Biber, Violin Sonatas 1681 — Lina Tur Bonet (CD, EAN-13 barcode)
amazon media link

The Contents of the CD

The recording includes five sonatas. Four of these are from the collection “Sonatae Violino solo 1681” which Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber published in Nuremberg (Nürnberg). The collection features 8 sonatas, of which the recording includes four (marked bold):

  • Sonata I in A major, C.138
    • Sonata II in D dorian, C.139
  • Sonata III in F major, C.140
    • Sonata IV in D major, C.141 (scordatura a e’ a’ d”)
  • Sonata V in E minor, C.142
  • Sonata VI in C minor, C.143 (partially using scordatura g d’ a’ d”)
    • Sonata VII in G major, C.144
    • Sonata VIII in A major, C.145

The sonatas marked in green are present in John Holloway’s 2001 recording “Unam Ceylum” shown below.

The recording includes the additional Partia (Parthia, Partita) VII for two viole d’amore from the collection “Harmonia artificio-ariosa“, which Biber published 1696:

  • Partia I in D minor, C.62, for two violins (tuned a, e’, a’, d”)
  • Partia II in B minor, C.63, for two violins (tuned b, f♯’, b’, d”)
  • Partia III in A major, C.64, for two violins (tuned a, e’ a’, e”)
  • Partia IV in E♭ major, C.65, for violin (tuned b♭, e♭’, b♭’, e♭”) and viola (tuned e♭, b♭, e♭’, b♭’)
  • Partia V in G minor, C.66, for two violins (tuned g, d’, a’, d”)
  • Partia VI in D major, C.67, for two violins
  • Partia VII in C minor, C.68 for two viole d’amore (tuned c, g, c’, e♭’, g’, c”)

Lina Tur Bonet has also recorded the Partia V in G minor, C.66 (marked in orange) as part of her 2019 recording “La Bellezza, see below.

Track Listing

  • Sonatae Violino solo 1681
    • Sonata III in F major, C.140 [12’43”]
      1. [1’52”] Adagio — Presto — Adagio — Presto — Adagio — Presto — Adagio — Presto
      2. [2’38”] Aria — Variatio
      3. [3’01”] Presto — Adagio — Allegro — Adagio
      4. [5’12”] Variatio Grave — Adagio — (untitled)
    • Sonata V in E minor, C.142 [11’34”]
      1. [2’21”] (untitled) — Adagio — Adagio
      2. [5’15”] Variatio: Allegro — Adagio — Presto — Adagio — Presto
      3. [3’58”] Aria Variatio: Presto — Adagio
    • Sonata I in A major, C.138 [10’56”]
      1. [3’11”] (untitled) — Adagio — (untitled) — Adagio (*)
      2. [0’44”] Presto (*)
      3. [5’34”] Variatio — Presto
      4. [1’26”] Finale — Presto
    • Sonata VI in C minor, C.143 [13’25”]
      1. [1’23”] (untitled)
      2. [4’26”] Passacaglia
      3. [2’13”] (untitled) — Adagio (scordatura g d’ a’ d”)
      4. [2’19”] Gavotte
      5. [3’04”] Adagio — Allegro — Adagio
  • Harmonia artificio-ariosa (1696)
    • Partia VII in C minor, C.68, for 2 viole d’amore [18’14”]
      1. [2’58”] Praeludium: Grave — Presto
      2. [2’12”] Allamande
      3. [1’14”] Sarabande
      4. [2’07”] Gigue: Presto
      5. [2’00”] Aria
      6. [0’49”] Trezza
      7. [6’54”] Arietta variata — Presto

Total duration (22 tracks): 66’52”

(*) track splitting corrected from the booklet

Complementary Recordings

Lina Tur Bonet’s discography includes the recording below, which features another one of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber’s Harmonia artificio-ariosa (1696), again performed by Lina Tur Bonet and Musica Alchemica:

Lina Tur Bonet / Musica Alchemica
“La Bellezza”, The Beauty of 17th Century Violin Music

Lina Tur Bonet, Musica Alchemica —La Bellezza (CD cover)

La Bellezza” — The Beauty of 17th Century Violin Music

Lina Tur Bonet, Musica Alchemica

Note 1 Music / PAN Classics PC 10408 (CD stereo, ℗ / © 2020)
Booklet: 28 pp., de/en/es

Lina Tur Bonet, Musica Alchemica —La Bellezza (CD, EAN-13 barcode)
amazon media link

On this recording from 2019 (recorded in the Chiesa di Sant’Eligio dei Ferrari in Rome, Italy), Lina Tur Bonet again performed with her own ensemble, Musica Alchemica.

Unlike the featured CD above, this recording includes not just works by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, but a collection of violin sonatas by 11 composers. Besides Biber, these (and their works) are (in the order of their birth year):

  • Paolo Cima (c.1575 – 1622): Sonata Seconda
  • Andrea Falconieri (c.1585 – 1656): Follias echa para mi Señora Doña Tarolilla de Carallenos
  • Biagio Marini (1594 – 1663): Sonata sopra la Mónica
  • Marco Uccellini (1603 – 1680): Aria sopra la Bergamasca
  • Antonio Bertali (1605 – 1669): Ciaccona
  • Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (c.1623 – 1680): Sonata Quarta
  • Dieterich Buxtehude (1637 – 1707): Sonata a 2, BuxWV 272
  • Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644 – 1704): Partia V from Harmonia artificio-ariosa
  • Nicola Matteis Jr. (1650 – 1714): Alia fantasia
  • Romanus Weichlein (1652 – 1706): Partia III
  • Johann Paul Westhoff (1656 – 1705): Imitatione del liuto

Listing of the Relevant Tracks

Discussing this entire recording is beyond the scope of this posting—I may discuss it in a separate, short review. For now, let me just refer to the one sonata (Partia V in G minor) from Harmonia artificio-ariosa (1696) on that CD, with the following 5 tracks (out of 15 total):

  • Partia V in G minor, C.66, for 2 violins (tuned g, d’, a’, d”) [9’58”]
    • [1’12”] Intrada: Alla breve
    • [1’40”] Aria: Adagio
    • [0’30”] Balletto: Presto
    • [0’51”] Gigue
    • [5’45”] Passacaglia — Allegro — Adagio

Total duration (15 tracks): 74’09”

The Artists

In this earlier recording, besides its leader, Lina Tur Bonet, Musica Alchemica comprises 10 musicians—mostly different ones than those in the main CD featured in this posting. The composition of the ensemble varies within the 11 compositions listed above. In Biber’s Partia V in G minor, C.66, for two violins, the following musicians are performing:

  • Lina Tur Bonet, baroque violin & direction
    Violin by Don Nicolò Amati (1662 – 1752), Bologna, c.1740
  • Valerio Losito, baroque violin
  • Marco Ceccato, baroque cello
  • Andrew Ackerman, baroque double bass
  • Giangiacomo Pinardi, archlute
  • Dani Espasa, harpsichord

Besides Lina Tur Bonet, only two of these (Valerio Losito and Andrew Ackerman) were also performing in the featured CD from 2021.

John Holloway — Biber, “Unam Ceylum”

I have played violin myself, some 50 years ago (see my bio posts). I have long admired the violin music from the 17th and 18th centuries—though Biber was certainly out of reach and way beyond my modest abilities. However, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber’s music found its way into my collection already in the days of LPs (a.k.a. vinyl). Over 15 years ago, when my CD collection was taking shape, I added several recordings with violin from that period. One of these was John Holloway‘s CD “Unam Ceylum”:

Biber, Violin Sonatas 1681 — Holloway (CD cover)

Biber: Unam Ceylum

John Holloway, violin
Aloysia Assenbaum, organ
Lars Ulrik Mortensen, harpsichord

ECM New Series 1791 / 472 084-2 (CD stereo, ℗ / © 2002)
Booklet: 32 pp., en/de/fr

Biber, Violin Sonatas 1681 — Holloway (CD, UPC-A barcode)
amazon media link

It always makes for a more meaningful discussion if I have one or several alternate recording(s) to compare with. So, I decided to include John Holloway’s interpretation. We’ll see whether one of the two recordings—20 years apart—qualifies for the title “reference”…

The Artists

The central artist on this CD is John Holloway (*1948, see also Wikipedia), performing on a baroque violin. Different from Lina Tur Bonet, John Holloway works with an accompaniment of just two musicians, including his wife, Aloysia Assenbaum-Holloway, who died at the end of the very year when this recording was published:

In the booklet, John Holloway goes at great length in explaining why he selected to perform just with an organ and a harpsichord (mostly performing simultaneously / in combination) in lieu of a bigger, richer accompaniment, such as Lina Tur Bonet’s Musica Alchemica. I can’t reproduce these explanations in detail here.

Let me just mention the essentials: according to Holloway, a continuo accompaniment such as his was common at Biber’s time / in Biber’s environment. Organ and harpsichord formed a common combination for a basso continuo. He even referred to critics who claimed that richer accompaniments are “historically wrong”. I won’t enter this debate—I’m not looking at these recordings strictly as musicologist (which I’m not). My focus in this posting is on the (my) listening experience, which entails factors such as transparency, but also richness in sound (sound colors, etc.).

Track Listing

Besides four sonatas from Biber’s Sonatae Violino solo 1681, the recording includes two unpublished sonatas for violin and basso continuo. The sonatas are all in one single track each:

Total duration (6 tracks): 77’13”

Recording Location

The CD was recorded in May 2001 in the Monastery of St.Gerold in Austria.

The CD Title — A Misnomer?

The booklet gives no explanation on the meaning of “Unam Ceylum“. Some speculate that it means “one heaven”. Searches indicate that this recording is the only reference to that term. However, the booklet, contains an image of the facsimile preface of Biber’s Sonatae Violino solo 1681:

H.I.F. Biber, preface to the "Sonatae Violino solo 1681" (source: IMSLP, public domain)
H.I.F. Biber, preface to the Sonatae Violino solo 1681 (source: IMSLP, public domain)

The text is not trivial to decipher, as it apparently is full of puns, word plays (word constructs?), words with double meaning, etc. Below the devote address (Your Highest and Most Revered Highness [Emperor Leopold?], Sire, most graceful Sire), line 3 of the main text starts with “Collegi nunc in unam Chelyn, …”, which I read as “Colleagues now in one heaven” (or: “Colleagues now unified in Heaven“). However, “one heaven” in “proper” Latin would be “unum caelum

The Listening Experience

I was pleased to see that there is a limited overlap of just two sonatas (Sonata III in F major, C.140 and Sonata VI in C minor, C.143) between John Holloway’s and Lina Tur Bonet’s recordings. In other words: with respect to the violin sonatas by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, the three recordings nicely complement each other. With this, the discussion below is mostly a presentation of the music and its interpretation(s), rather than a comparison between performances.

The Sonatae Violino solo 1681 are not covered in their entirety: Sonata II in D dorian, C.139 and Sonata VIII in A major, C.145 are not included here.

On the Notation

For the unprepared listener: it is important to note that Biber did not write out the full accompaniment. At best, there is a figured bass line. Often, there are not even numeric annotations, i.e., the accompanist(s) must find the appropriate harmonies from the solo part(s), and construct (or improvise) a suitable harmonic “filling”.


Not only does the notation just provide the bass line as foundation, but it also lacks any instructions concerning instrumentation. John Holloway states that a simple keyboard accompaniment was common (in Salzburg) at Biber’s time—hence, a harpsichord sounds like a logical choice. However, Biber often writes the violin part(s) above an extended drone (like: Sonata I in A major, C.138, just has a single A pedal drone across the entire first segment). In such cases, the harpsichord is not ideal—Holloway complements it with a chamber organ. The organ alone, on the other hand, may often be lacking contours in complex right-hand parts. There, the harpsichord is the ideal complement to the chamber organ.

Frugality or Richness?

From looking at the composition of her ensemble, Musica Alchemica, one could get the impression that Lina Tur Bonet went the opposite way, by going for a rich and varied accompaniment. However, that perception is (partially) misleading. As John Holloway, the artist and her team carefully and thoroughly researched the available sources. She considered and respected the character of every movement. Not unlike Holloway, she restricted the accompaniment to a single instrument (typically an organ) where the bass is merely a single (non-figured) drone.

In the booklet, Lina Tur Bonet writes “In the dedication itself, Biber alludes to his desire for variety, which is why we have instrumented the continuo sometimes according to recent research into the practice in Salzburg, using combinations of violone and organ, or organ with plucked strings; but also at other times adding the mundane harpsichord and the inimitable color of the harp. The realization of the continuo is sometimes very organized and measured, while at other times we look for the risk, the spontaneity, the frenzy that the writing appears to suggest.” (Text re-translated from Spanish, partly with the help of Deepl).

Pitch Setting

The direct confrontation between the two recordings (here: in Sonata III in F major, C.140, and in Sonata VI in C minor, C.143) instantly reveals one difference: John Holloway performs at a’=415 Hz, whereas Lina Tur Bonet / Musica Alchemica use a’=440 Hz. I’m just mentioning this here because in these cases, the pitch difference is most obvious. I’m not judging that setting, or otherwise express a preference: in baroque times, a variety of pitches between a’=392 (a full tone lower than the modern a’=440) and a’=466 (half a tone above) were in use. I don’t know whether there is any clear indication about the pitch used in Salzburg at Biber’s time.

For people without perfect pitch, the actual pitch setting is of minor importance (it does influence the sonority—volume, color / brightness, etc.—of string instruments, though). In actual practice, as soon as an organ is involved, that instrument determines the pitch for a performance. Pipe organs cannot be re-tuned to accommodate a different pitch setting.


For two of the sonatas (Sonata III in F major, C.140 and Sonata VI in C minor, C.143), the discussion is a comparison between two recordings. It would seem logical to compare the newer recording (Lina Tur Bonet) to the older one (John Holloway). However, as the former is the featured CD in this posting, I’m first describing / discussing Lina Tur Bonet’s interpretation. After that, I’m discussing the older recording, with references / to the newer recording.

Sonata I in A major, C.138 (Sonatae Violino solo 1681)

Biber, Violin Sonatas 1681 — Lina Tur Bonet (CD cover)

Lina Tur Bonet, Musica Alchemica

I. (untitled) — Adagio — (untitled) — Adagio

The booklet states that in preludes, the composer would not just simply improvise (to “warm up”). Rather, he would step towards the organ to depress and hold a key in the pedal, producing a drone (“pedal point”), on top of which he would perform or improvise the opening of a sonata. Consequently, in the opening segment, Lina Tur Bonet keeps the drone A as the only “accompaniment”—except for the one bar (#10) where the composer added harmonic annotation: there, the organist’s right hand follows the solo instrument (lowered by a third).

The effect of the drone is mesmerizing! The solo part starts with special effects: prominent accents through doubling a’ and e” as double-stop tones in unison. The subsequent “improvisation” consists of virtuosic demisemiquaver runs and figures, rapid repeated notes, polyphony in double- and triple-stop passages—a true firework opening. Lina Tur Bonet’s solo excels not only through utmost clarity and cleanest intonation, but it is truly enthralling, sparkling, bursting of life, instantly engaging the listener!

Adagio — (untitled) — Adagio

The Adagio features a figured bass line. Here, the organ still stays limited to the bass line, while the harmonies (“right-hand accompaniment”) are added by lute and theorbo, possibly a harp. This proves ideal for this segment: it offers warmth, while retaining clarity and presence, yet does not compete with the polyphony of the (mostly double-stop) violin part.

After a fermata, another virtuosic semiquaver segment follows (true stylus fantasticus!), again above a drone foundation. This culminates in a short cadenza with rapid arpeggiando. Here, the plucked instruments (lute, theorbo) complement the organ drone, up to (and including) the closing Adagio of merely three bars.

II. Presto

A short, virtuosic three-part fughetta with a short, punctuated theme, where the violin artfully covers two or three voices, complemented by the periodic appearances of the theme in the bass. Here, the bass is figured. Lute and theorbo don’t just fill the harmonies but enrich the texture by following and imitating the theme from the solo and bass parts.

III. Variatio — Presto

VariatioPresto” is a Passacaglia on a 4-bar / 4-note bass motif (a – d – e – A) on the organ pedal, which is repeated 58 times. This theme is harmonized by lute and theorbo, as well as on the organ manual. Above this the violin performs a rich set of variations, whereby the “theme” is typically 8 bars long. The first 8 bars are just the (harmonized) bass, and later, there are two instances of the Passacaglia theme without violin part. And this highly inventive violin part—astounding in beauty, virtuosity, and richness! Of course, the harmonizations are much more than just that—the textures in the figured bass setting follows violin part, with imitation, contrasts / complementary voices, etc.; moreover, Lina Tur Bonet occasionally even adds her own fioriture and ornaments.

The Presto part covers the final 11 instances of the Passacaglia theme—not primarily fast, but virtuosic in the double- and triple-stop violin part.

IV. Finale — Presto

The Finale is a return to the opening segment, in that it again features a simple drone foundation—d in this case. The first part (6 bars) is filled with a line of rapid, virtuosic demisemiquaver figures, which Lina Tur Bonet plays with perfect intonation and clarity. At the same time, she fills the notes with life through expressive, vivid agogics. The Presto is an extended solo cadenza that builds up virtuosity from simple quaver motifs. Only in the last bar, the organist fills the plagal cadence by following the harmonies in the violin part with his right hand.


The tone of Lina Tur Bonet’s baroque violin is bright, shining, brilliant in the high register, particularly character on the lower strings—and of course miles away from the polished tone from modern(ized) violins combined with a modern bow. Clearly, the artist has the technical prowess and reserves to master Biber’s demanding scores, the artistry in his violin parts.

The organ accompaniment (Adrià Gràcia) entirely relies on a discreet flue register—a solid, yet gentle foundation, acoustically ideally balanced. The latter certainly also holds true to the harmonic “filling” by lute (Ramiro Morales) and theorbo (Jadran Duncumb), which retains clarity and presence without ever covering or otherwise negatively affecting the solo part.

Sonata III in F major, C.140 (Sonatae Violino solo 1681)

Biber, Violin Sonatas 1681 — Lina Tur Bonet (CD cover)

Lina Tur Bonet, Musica Alchemica

Here’s a sonata that is truly fantastic—both in the sense of stylus fantasticus, as well as in terms of the general richness in invention that it offers. Consequently, Lina Tur Bonet took profit from the bandwidth, the richness of Musica Alchemica, involving violone (and viola da gamba?), lute, theorbo, harpsichord, and baroque harp:

I. Adagio — Presto — Adagio — Presto — Adagio — Presto — Adagio — Presto
[1’52”] In comparison to John Holloway’s recording, the most striking feature is in the rich accompaniment, which also takes a more prominent role. The violin, of course, remains central. With the purity and clarity of Lina Tur Bonet’s playing, the violin never is in danger of drowning in the accompaniment. That holds true even when the solo is retracting into intimate moments (even on the lower strings). Her playing is often noticeably faster than Holloway’s—and it features remarkable, “eruptive” tempo alterations (extreme accelerando, contrasting with prominent fermatas / resting points).

The biggest difference to Holloway’s recording is in the overall soundscape. As mentioned, the accompaniment is very rich, enshrouding the violin part. Plus, it is not just colla parte, but includes rhythmic contrasts, “commenting lines”, contrapuntal and complementary elements from the plucked instruments. It’s simply marvelous. I don’t want to enter the debate whether a scarcer, more frugal / basic continuo would have been more correct, historically: I never have the feeling that the accompaniment is excessive, “too thick”, too adventurous, etc.—rather, it feels adequate, totally “in style” for music of that period. My key argument for preferring this recording is the immense listening pleasure.

II. Aria Variatio
[2’38”] The Aria is in AABB form, i.e., it has two parts with repeats—a song, or a true aria, based on a beautiful cantilena, in an enchanting dialog with the lute. Needless to say that Lina Tur Bonet uses the repeats to add a set of beautiful, fitting ornaments. My only minor reservation here is in a certain tendency towards swelling or “belly” dynamics on longer notes in the violin part.

Variatio consists of two variations of the aria—again with repeats. The technical nature of these variations (one with permanent, wide jumps, the other one with virtuosic semiquaver figures) does not lead itself to ornamentation. Instead, rich, and beautiful ornamentation is provided by theorbo and (mostly) lute.

III. Presto Adagio Allegro Adagio
[3’01”] A kaleidoscope of colors and emotions! The Presto blistering from blazing virtuosity in the solo in the first part, then drawing its energy from the pulsations in the plucked accompaniment. The Adagio is a moment of reflection, culminating in a wonderfully dissonant, chromatic descent—a sobbing lament. The two-bar continuo transition to the Allegro instantly picks up momentum again, driven by theorbo and lute. The Allegro itself is another virtuosic showpiece for the violin—light, seemingly effortless, but differentiated in dynamics and agogics. The second part of the Allegro is another, excellent example of stylus fantasticus, with frequent mood changes and strongly contrasting characters, gradually mutating into the Adagio.

IV. Variatio Grave — Adagio — (untitled)
[5’12”] Up to and including the Adagio, this is a Passacaglia over the simple, 4-bar bass ostinatof — c — d — c“—a fabulous movement! There is an 8-bar introduction, presenting the bass ostinato. In the Grave, the violin presents a simple, melodious theme in four instances. Biber then takes this through four variations of growing virtuosity, culminating in double-stop ricochet (jeté) motifs.

The original theme leads into the Adagio part, which starts like a simple variation, followed by a longer, virtuosic, cadenza-like based on a single solo motif (alternating quavers below rapid demisemiquaver tremolo), finally involving double-stop quavers below the tremolo.

In a surprise move, the last section switches to motoric, alternating quavers in the bass as accompaniment for very rapid demisemiquaver lines, even accelerating—stile concitato by the book, irresistible and enthralling! The ending is abrupt and instantaneous. One could see it as a plagal cadence, but there isn’t even time to realize that.


My description above is hardly adequate for this fabulous movement. However, I need to mention instrumentation. The opening introduces the Davidsharfe (David’s harp), a.k.a. bray harp, a baroque harp with special “bray pins” that can be turned towards the strings, to produce a peculiar, buzzing sound (here: specifically for the Passacaglia motif). That harp is joined by lute and theorbo—a lovely, warm, intimate beginning. Into this Lina Tur Bonet’s solo can really expose its bright, shining, brilliant tone. Gradually, the accompaniment takes over a more central role, with solo passages on the harp, lute, and theorbo.

Almost unnoticed, viola da gamba and violone join in, reinforcing the continuo, later even the harpsichord contributes to the incredible richness in sound, which grows to almost orchestral dimensions. The setting returns to intimacy for the beginning of the Adagio part, then builds up again towards the eruptive ending. Fabulous!

Biber, Violin Sonatas 1681 — Holloway (CD cover)

John Holloway, Aloysia Assenbaum, Lars Ulrik Mortensen

For general descriptions of the movements see above.

I. Adagio — Presto — Adagio — Presto — Adagio — Presto — Adagio — Presto
[1’56”] In direct confrontation, there are obvious differences between the two recordings—besides the half-tone difference in pitch. John Holloway stays with his standard accompaniment in this recording, organ plus harpsichord. The former not only plays the bass line, but carefully adds outlines of a harmonic “filling”. The harpsichord adds “contours” to the organ part, as well as richer harmonies in the form of plain and broken chords, arpeggios. The accompaniment largely is colla parte with the solo, i.e., neither the harpsichord nor the organ is trying to add contrapuntal elements, canon / imitations, etc.—in other words: a more “basic” accompaniment, providing the acoustic canvas for the soloist.

John Holloway’s solo part shows the artist’s ample experience and familiarity with baroque music: his playing is flawless and clear. Holloway is occasionally using jeu inégal, and of course highly expressive tempo alterations—though less eruptive than Lina Tur Bonet’s. The solo is also less differentiated in dynamics, maintaining an intense tone almost throughout. At least dynamically, it feels less “elastic” (central, almost “loud” at times).

One indicative difference between the two recordings: the end of the last Presto is abrupt, leaving only the reverberation of the church acoustics. With Lina Tur Bonet, the ending of the last Presto is equally abrupt. However, rather than relying upon faint reverberation, one can enjoy the richness of the fading resonances from the plucked instruments.

II. Aria Variatio
[3’06”] John Holloway’s aria feels careful, simpler, maybe more modest / straightforward, more solemn: the tempo is slower. Holloway does add ornaments in the repeats, too (fewer, though). The first variation is maybe a little straight (even occasionally a little stiff). Variation 2 isn’t stiff but articulated with utmost care and attention to detail. The violin of course always remains central, the continuo (harpsichord and organ) provides a nice and adequate foundation, but never assumes a prominent role.

One might say that in Holloway’s interpretation, this second movement assumes the role of a slow movement. Lina Tur Bonet’s interpretation, in contrast, isn’t slow or solemn—but reflective nevertheless, at least in the aria.

III. Presto Adagio Allegro Adagio
[2’50”] How does John Holloway’s performance compare to Lina Tur Bonet’s interpretation? Certainly, the soundscape is a very different one here. The organ / harpsichord accompaniment / foundation is more dense and more prominent, compared to Lina Tur Bonet’s discreet organ and (mostly) lute / theorbo setting. I suspect that this restricts the dynamic differentiation in the solo part. In the Presto, John Holloway is a tad slower, but still cannot match Lina Tur Bonet’s differentiated dynamics, her lightness, agility, and clarity.

The 2-bar transition to the Allegro (first just in the organ, then the harpsichord joining in with ascending imitations) is nice and harmonious, but feels more static, lacking the drive offered by lute and theorbo in Lina Tur Bonet’s recording. The Allegro is excellent in the solo: clear in articulation, and in the dynamic contrasts for the p segments. Did Holloway decide only to use real p where Biber explicitly specified it?

Based on this movement, I felt that I prefer Lina Tur Bonet’s lighter, but richer accompaniment. Here, the organ is a tad too prominent, often enough almost drowning the harpsichord, and possibly leading the violinist into a denser tone and articulation. I think the sound engineer should have corrected this.

IV. Variatio — Grave — Adagio — (untitled)
[5’15”] I’m tempted to say that comparing this to Lina Tur Bonet’s interpretation is unfair. A continuo with organ (just one flue register) and harpsichord can simply not compete with the rich soundscape that Musica Alchemica offers. The organ continues to be rather dominant. For the presentation of the Passacaglia theme (in the pedal, legato) it is alone, even for the first two instances of the solo melody. Only in bar 13, Aloysia Assenbaum starts adding harmonies in the right hand.

John Holloway’s approach to the first two variations (semiquavers) differs from Lina Tur Bonet’s: gentle, careful, modest, light, mostly soft, almost stepping back, behind the organ. After that first solo, the harpsichord takes over the harmonization, into the second violin segment (theme and variations 3 & 4), which John Holloway keeps simple, solemn, almost introverted. The last variation here is not jeté, just tremolo / rapid détaché—appropriate for the slower pace in this segment.

At the beginning of the Adagio, the harpsichord is too inconspicuous. Only in the demisemiquaver tremolo segment, John Holloway starts building up excitement, up to the stile concitato ending. Here, the violin is brilliant, virtuosic, very clear, masterful—somewhat contrasting to the simple, chordal continuo. It’s all less radical, less daring (if not extreme) than Lina Tur Bonet’s interpretation.

Sonata IV in D major, C.141 (Sonatae Violino solo 1681)

Biber, Violin Sonatas 1681 — Holloway (CD cover)

John Holloway, Aloysia Assenbaum, Lars Ulrik Mortensen

Scordatura in Practice

Within the eight sonatas in Sonatae Violino solo 1681, this is the only one that uses scordatura throughout (sonata VI has scordatura for one movement only, see below). Here, the violin is re-tuned from g – d’ – a’ – e” to a – e’ – a’ – d”, i.e., the pitch of the lower two strings is risen by a full tone, the top (e”) string is lowered by a full tone. This leads to a rather unusual key signature in the score (Biber, 1959):

H.I.F. Biber, beginning of the prelude to Sonata IV, scordatura / signature
H.I.F. Biber, scordatura, key & time signature for Sonata IV

Scordatura has two primary effects: technically, it enables the violinist’s left hand to reach intervals and chords that would be hard, if not impossible to play with standard tuning. In addition, it changes the “internal” (cross-)resonances, hence altering the sonorities.

There are more issues: the composer could write the music as it sounds, i.e., ignoring the scordatura. This makes it easy to read for listeners. However, it would be very cumbersome for the artist, as they would always need to take into account that the positions on the fingerboard need to be corrected to produce the notes in the score.

The alternative: writing the music such that the violinist can read the score as if there was no scordatura. This is what Biber does: the first two notes in the example above are both d”, and the g in the second bar is an a. In other words: the score is difficult to read for listeners. And: for violinists with perfect pitch, playing such music might be somewhat of a nightmare, as the pitch outcome differs from what the notation appears to suggest.

I. (untitled) — Presto
[1’47”] A beautiful, festive, and solemn opening! Marvelous violin sonority, with these generous triple- and quadruple-stop chords, and just as much thanks to the tone doublings (and third parallels) between the d” (ex e”) and a’ strings. I like the balance / soundscape much more than in Sonata III. The violin is differentiated in dynamics, careful in articulation. And the harpsichord not only shows very nice continuo playing (harmonization, ornamentation, etc.), but also receives adequate presence between the violin and the organ. The latter feels more discreet than in Sonata III.

The Presto part is equally a joy to listen to: virtuosic and lively on the violin, the harpsichord nicely complementing the solo, i.e., taking an active role (echoing and varying the violin motifs) when the solo pauses.

II. Gigue
[0’48”] Here, the continuo is strictly chordal, with 4 beats per 12/8 measure. That feels maybe a little rigid / frugal, given the uniform (crotchet + quaver) figures in the solo. At least, John Holloway does add a few (scarse) ornaments in the repeats.

III. Double I / II
[0’48” / 0’32”] The first Double features the same, rather simple (simplistic) continuo as the original Gigue. The persistent semiquavers in the solo leave no (or little) chance for ornamentation. However, John Holloway’s playing is very diligent and differentiated, “talking”. The same applies to Double II, i.e., the continuo is virtually identical to the Gigue. This feels a tad tiring and may explain why the final repeat features a slight (spontaneous or deliberate?) acceleration.

IV. Adagio
[2’09”] I have little to add about the violin part—beautifully played—an exemplary interpretation. Here, the continuo is carried by the harpsichord alone. Beautiful sonority also here—and well-balanced against the violin, acoustically. In the calm outer parts, the continuo feels a little too simple, especially initially, with uniform arpeggios ascending from d in the bass. In the middle part, that’s not a problem, as the rich violin part (dotted semiquavers initially, then lively demisemiquaver figures) is “self-sufficient” and rightly in the center of the attention.

V. Aria & Variatio 1-2-3-4
[4’48”] The fifth movement is an aria (in AABB form) with four variations. Clearly, here, the violin is “the king”, i.e., in the center of the attention. The aria features a simple, chordal continuo (organ + harpsichord). In the first two variations, the organ is the only accompaniment—again simple and unobtrusive.

In variation III, the harpsichord rejoins the organ, again in a simple, chordal continuo (short arpeggios on the harpsichord. Together with the resolute quaver figures in the violin, the chordal accompaniment makes this feel somewhat stiff, rigid. In the violin part, the fourth variation is identical to the initial aria. Here, however, the continuo is contrapuntal: it forms a canon, imitating the violin part.

VI. Finale — Presto
[1’15”] The Finale is a brilliant Biber masterpiece: a drone (pedal point) on A throughout the movement, except for the last three bars, where it moves to d. The short movement opens with a violin cadenza featuring rapid passages, tremolos, and echoes: more than a drone on the organ and scarce harmonization on the harpsichord is not needed here. The Presto part is motoric, enthralling, festive, and includes elements of stile concitato, whereby violin and harpsichord jointly drive the music forward: a virtuosic showpiece as “last dance”!

Sonata V in E minor, C.142 (Sonatae Violino solo 1681)

Biber, Violin Sonatas 1681 — Lina Tur Bonet (CD cover)

Lina Tur Bonet, Musica Alchemica

I. (untitled) Adagio Adagio

The opening section is a recitativo accompagnato with a rich accompaniment (organ, viola da gamba, lute, theorbo). The solo alternates includes highly expressive “vocal” segments: expressive dynamics on single notes, Lina Tur Bonet even adds “vocal” ornaments, such as flattement (finger vibrato) and tremolando, as in early baroque opera. This alternates with virtuosic “coloraturas”, supported by the continuo, which takes a beautiful, active role when the violin pauses.

A short cadenza (in demisemiquavers) leads over into the Adagio, an emotional, slightly melancholic arioso. There is an extended, virtuosic cadenza (cascades of demisemiquavers) that leads over to the second Adagio, a continuation of the arioso.

II. Variatio: Allegro Adagio Presto Adagio Presto

The first part is a Passacaglia (based on an 8-bar theme consisting of two ascending bass lines) with variations in the violin part. The latter starts with repeated, resolute half-notes on e” (doubled with the a’ string). Over several variations, the violin part gradually turns virtuosic, extravagant, occasionally even violent. Here, the accompaniment lacks keyboard instruments: violone, viola da gamba, theorbo and lute are far better suited for the earnest, austere mood in this part.

The organ takes over the basso continuo in the Adagio. It is then joined by the lute for the Presto. The latter accelerates, gradually returning to the initial tempo, as theorbo, violone, and organ join in. The second Adagio abandons the Passacaglia theme. It is the transition to the final Presto, complex, polyphonic / contrapuntal piece, with organ, violone and theorbo marking the bass line, and the lute enriching the texture with its generous, autonomous contribution. Fascinating!

III. Aria Variatio: Presto — Adagio

The Aria is a noble, solemn, and expressive theme, presented by violin and lute. In the repeat of the 8-bar theme, Lina Tur Bonet adds extraordinarily elaborate and inventive ornamentation: baroque richness!

The Variatio takes the Aria theme through an extraordinary set of 4 variations. The unprepared listener will primarily recognize the bass line, the harmonic progression: the complexity in the violin part make it hard to identify the Aria melody in all the passage work. The first two variations are Presto: the first one with pars of slurred semiquavers and simple lute accompaniment, the second one picks up momentum in the punctuated violin part, also driven by the continuo (violone, theorbo, lute). The third variation (Adagio) just has organ and viola da gamba. The final variation (still Adagio) lets the virtuosic demisemiquavers in the violin take the lead role, limiting the continuo to the bass line with discreet, chordal harmonization in the lute.

A movement, a sonata of exceptional character and peculiar beauty.

Sonata VI in C minor, C.143 (Sonatae Violino solo 1681)

As John Holloway explains in his booklet comment, a peculiarity in this sonata is that up to the Passacaglia, the violin uses standard tuning (g – d’ – a’ – e”), whereas the subsequent segments require scordatura g – d’ – a’ – d”. In other words: from there on, the e” string must be tuned down to d” (only violin part shown):

H.I.F. Biber, Sonata VI, scordatura
H.I.F. Biber, Sonata VI, scordatura

Biber meant the movements in this sonata to be performed back-to-back, i.e., attacca. The Adagio begins with a two-bar rest in the solo part—that’s hardly enough time for the violinist to tune down the top string. Therefore, in practice (in concert, that is), violinists may instead swap their instrument to one that has been pre-tuned with scordatura. See also Scordatura in Practice” above.

Biber, Violin Sonatas 1681 — Lina Tur Bonet (CD cover)

Lina Tur Bonet, Musica Alchemica

I. (untitled)
[1’23”] Solemn, earnest, and reflective: the continuo bass (just the organ) is introducing a chromatic theme. The violin following up in canon-like fashion, while the bass line moves into the organist’s left hand. There is a second “theme”, featuring an ascending chromatic line—and here, the violin is leading, not the bass. The right hand does not harmonize the bass line, but adds a third, discreet voice. The ascending line will later find its “answer” / counterpart at the end of the last movement, see below.

A calm interpretation, almost reminding of Bach’s “The Art of the Fugue”, BWV 1080—though not nearly as strict / “theoretical”. Lina Tur Bonet’s playing is without any vibrato, but full of expression. One very minor quibble: long, emphasized notes tend to have a little too much “belly character”.

II. Passacaglia — Adagio
[4’26”] Lina Tur Bonet’s entry into the Passacaglia is gentle, “integrated”, almost discreet, intimate in the p response. Here, it’s the theorbo which sets accents with prominent, arpeggiated chords, assisted by the viola da gamba. Through the subsequent variations, the volume gradually builds up, and so does the continuo, with lute, organ, and probably the harp. It takes up to around the middle of the movement for the music really to step out of gentle intimacy. The second half is more virtuosic, but still never trumps up—rather feeling light and playful. The short, closing Adagio is remarkable in its descending chromatic line.

III. (untitled, scordatura) — Adagio
[2’13”] In Lina Tur Bonet’s interpretation, the next movement follows attacca—however, she has the lutenist insert a simple, soft 1-bar transition, before the violone performs the first two bars with discreet harmonization by the lute. It’s all soft, gentle—yet the final interval e♭’ – f♯, a diminished seventh, is highlighted in volume, but also by an accelerating tremolando on the lower note. With equal temperament tuning (e.g., on a modern piano), this sounds like an ordinary, major sixth. However, here, it clearly feels like a dissonant interval that stands out as such. I’m sure that Andrew Ackerman at the violone is not playing a major sixth, but a “proper, diminished seventh”.

With the 1-bar lute transition, the violinist has enough time to switch to an instrument with scordatura, possibly even to quickly re-tune the e” string. The violin (h)arpeggio that follows is very fast, anticipating the rapid motion in the semiquaver figures that follow. The latter are highly differentiated and rich in agogics—clearly an eloquent recitative: excellent! The closing Adagio is very brief, merely a short intermezzo of sorts, ending in a tiny 2-bar cadenza.

Here, the Gavotte does not follow immediately—rather, Adrià Gràcia at the organ inserts a short (<20″) connecting passage. It’s an ideal way to reconcile the contrast between rich, “vocal” recitative, and the more “organized” world of the subsequent dance movement.

IV. Gavotte
[2’19”] A proper dance movement: lively, very light in articulation, dance swaying, momentum, driven both from the solo part, as well as from lute and theorbo in the accompaniment.

V. Adagio Allegro Adagio
[3’04”] The Adagio consists of multiple segments: it opens with a lovely recitativo accompagnato-like segment. It is a richly ornamented, intimate monolog / self-reflection over a very calm and discreet continuo setting (organ, viola da gamba). After a short arioso-like cantilena, the violin starts an extended, calm double-stop tremolo segment (portato quavers, actually), supported by organ, viola da gamba. Later also lute and theorbo join in, as the expression builds up towards the Allegro, and the transition consists of three “recitative” bars full of modulations—dramatic for its time, and full of suspense / expectation!

In the Allegro, segments with quaver triplets alternate with semiquaver-based bars in the violin, above a solemn, majestic bass foundation, gradually building up towards the Adagio—a dramatic climax. The end is stunning, grandiose, featuring three instances of a descending, chromatic fourth (Passus duriusculus). These are formidable—a genius idea, to refer to the beginning of the sonata by inverting the initial, ascending chromatic lines! A masterpiece!

Biber, Violin Sonatas 1681 — Holloway (CD cover)

John Holloway, Aloysia Assenbaum, Lars Ulrik Mortensen

For general descriptions of the movements see above.

I. (untitled)
[1’34”] John Holloway takes this movement noticeably slower, and with “flatter”, broader articulation, maybe less expressive than Lina Tur Bonet, though with slightly more flexible tone. Lars Ulrik Mortensen’s right hand is discreet, probably a little less theme-bound than Adrià Gràcia’s in Lina Tur Bonet’s recording.

II. Passacaglia — Adagio
[4’46”] Here, the overall dynamic scope is more restricted than in Lina Tur Bonet’s interpretation—especially given the rather prominent sound of the organ, which is assisted by the harpsichord. John Holloway does clearly set apart the p responses. In general, his articulation is somewhat broader, and even where his bow strokes are short, staccato-like, he still avoids harsh / rough “edges”. One might say that he takes fewer risks, is often less daring than Lina Tur Bonet.

Interestingly, even though both violinists add ornaments to the closing Adagio, John Holloway’s chromaticism appears less exposed, less provoking than Lina Tur Bonet’s. Is that due to John Holloway’s articulation / intonation, or is it maybe the organ, which softens / mediates the chromatic intervals?

III. (scordatura, untitled) — Adagio
[1’38”] With only a minute pause, the violinist here won’t re-tune the e” string, but simply switch to an alternate violin.

Compared to the featured recording, this interpretation feels very different, with organ and harpsichord playing the two introduction bars. For one, the harpsichord adds harmonization, and on the organ, the f♯ is rather soft. Together with the harmonization, the dissonant nature of the diminished seventh remains hidden. Even on these keyboard instrument (not using equal temperament tuning), it is still not just a major sixth, but the organist does not have the option to “make the interval more dissonant”.

What sounds like a recitative in Lina Tur Bonet’s interpretation assumes a much different character here: John Holloway rather presents a rich, eloquent, and virtuosic cadenza (much less daring in the agogics) that lasts through the closing Adagio. Sure, it’s excellent, and masterfully played—but somehow it lacks the excitement and the rich narration in Lina Tur Bonet’s recitative.

IV. Gavotte
[2’04”] A dance movement, somewhat moody in character, mainly driven by the violinist, maybe a tad too driven, too fluid? I prefer Lina Tur Bonet’s more “settled” pace.

V. Adagio Allegro Adagio
[3’01”] The Adagio is beautiful, though more metric than in Lina Tur Bonet’s interpretation. And the organ once more is rather dominant / intrusive, at least in comparison to Lina Tur Bonet’s more discreet and integrated accompaniment. John Holloway’s tremolo (written with staccato dots!) is broader: not portato, almost legato—slow volume modulations. The prominent organ contributes to making the tremolo sound like a gentle allusion.

The Allegro is also less dramatic, a little more regular in the basic meter across the semiquavers and the quaver triplets. And the final Adagio is not as pronounced in the mood / tonality changes. It is more harmonious overall.

Sonata VII in G major, C.144 (Sonatae Violino solo 1681)

Biber, Violin Sonatas 1681 — Holloway (CD cover)

John Holloway, Aloysia Assenbaum, Lars Ulrik Mortensen

I. (Praeludium)
[2’17”] After the opening, a repeated grand gesture, the prelude continues with an ascending sequence of half notes on the violin, above a quaver line in the bass, nicely set out on the harpsichord. Subsequently, the solo part moves into smaller notes, finally into a line of semiquaver and eloquent demisemiquaver figures. Compared to the sonatas above, the more active role of the bass line is evident, and Lars Ulrik Mortensen’s inventive harpsichord harmonization highlights the active role of the basso continuo.

It’s a pity that the organ is once more too prominent: a pity for Lars Ulrik Mortensen’s beautiful harmonization. I could easily imagine this movement performed with basso continuo using the harpsichord alone—or, at least with just a very discreet organ reinforcement of the bass line.


In this movement, the musical language clearly is Biber’s. And yet, the violin part somehow reminds me of violin sonatas by George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759). I can’t put my finger on specific moments / motifs. Maybe it’s just the fact that John Holloway plays the long notes in the first part without any ornamentation? It makes me wonder whether that was Biber’s intent. As for Handel, I have a recording of violin sonatas by a prominent (traditional school) violinist who plays the slow movement without any ornamentation: shameful! We know for sure that in baroque times, such movements were heavily ornamented by the violinist.

It is possible, though, that John Holloway interpreted these long notes as the beginning of a progressive diminution (from half notes to demisemiquavers) across this movement. For the same reason, he may have decided to use ornamentation only sparingly throughout this movement. Nevertheless, the “naked” half notes still feel somewhat odd.

II. Aria & Variatio: Presto
[3’32”] The Aria is in “conventional” AABB form (2 x 4 bars)—a simple folk melody. There are two variations that follow the same form scheme: the first one in quavers, the second one in semiquavers. Then, the Aria returns in its original form. Up to this point, the composition is uncomplicated—it appears to reflect the simple nature of the folk song, almost conventional. Then, however, Biber adds a veritable 3- or 4-part fugue based on the folk theme. There are two, occasionally three parts in the violin, later, the bass also takes part in the fugue, growing out of its role as basso continuo. I was pleased to see that here, the organ part (finally!) is discreet, often restricted to the bass line.

III. Adagio — Presto — Grave — Presto — Più Presto — Adagio
[1’38”] The annotations alone indicate that here, “Biber returned to his proper self”. Indeed: a rich, multi-faceted piece! A solemn, ornamented beginning, picking up momentum (Presto), stopping for a very short, firm Grave, then again continuing to gain motion moving into staccato / spiccato, rapid demisemiquaver scales, and finally, in the Più Presto, an intricate sequence of détaché semiquaver figures. The closing Adagio is short, almost unexpected—a mere transition to the final movement.

IV. Ciacona
[5’13”] The Giacona initially appears like another, simple folk melody. However, already the theme is in three parts (AABBCC), with a middle part that contrasts with its wide jumps. The following variations retain the AABBCC scheme: the first one is in quaver triplets, with the middle part momentarily moving into minor keys. The capricious second variation explores virtuosic ricochet (jeté) bowing. Variation 3 is intimate and calm, lovely, full of warmth. Variation 4, finally, is again virtuosic: it returns to the motifs of variation 2—however, now not jeté, but legato in the demisemiquaver motifs. The sonata ends with the Giacona theme da capo, in a conciliatory atmosphere.

Partia V in G minor, C.66, for 2 violins (Harmonia artificio-ariosa 1696)

Lina Tur Bonet, Musica Alchemica —La Bellezza (CD cover)

Lina Tur Bonet, Valerio Losito, Musica Alchemica

In this sonata, the two violins use the same scordatura as Sonata VI in C minor, C.143 above: g – d’ – a’ – d”. In other words: the e” string is lowered by a full tone, such as to form an octave with the d’ string. This not only alters the sonority / the internal resonances of the instrument, but it also gives access to multiple-stop chords / combinations that would otherwise not be accessible. In addition to what I have written under Scordatura in Practice” above, the beginning of this sonata can serve as an illustrative example of how sheet music (Nettl & Reidinger, 1956) copes with scordatura:

H.I.F. Biber, Partia V, C.66, first bars
H.I.F. Biber, Partia V, C.66, first bars

The top two lines are what the composer has written, and what the violinist is reading / playing. Below that one finds the “translation” into standard notation. Here, relative to the violinist’s score, all notes above d” appear lowered by a full tone.

I. Intrada: Alla breve

A grandiose opening, a march-fanfare of sorts. Musica Alchemica comprises a baroque cello, baroque double bass, archlute, and harpsichord (see above for detail). With that accompaniment (and with the help of the church acoustics), the two soloists, Lina Tur Bonet and Valerio Losito, achieve nearly orchestral sonority. Apart from the opening fanfare, the violinists mostly perform in canone, a whole note apart.

II. Aria: Adagio

A very expressive duet, largely again in canone, now with a more intimate accompaniment, often dominated by archlute and harpsichord. Needless to say, that conventional vibrato is absent: expression is achieved solely through articulation and expressive bowing / dynamics.

III. Balletto: Presto

A short, but enthralling dance—the execution / coordination is flawless, of course.

IV. Gigue

Enthralling again—and gradually assuming virtuosity in the writing. Up to here, all movements are in AABB form, whereby the soloists of course add extra ornamentation in the repeats. I can’t think of an instance where these extra ornaments would be recognizable as such!

V. Passacaglia — Allegro — Adagio

The Passacaglia theme / bass consists of the simple, five-note motif G—A—B♭—c—d. Above this foundation (43 repeats of the bass motif), the two soloists develop an abundant, rich set of canonic variations, from simple ones growing into smaller note values, double-stop playing. The calm, solemn pace in the bass line changes almost unnoticeably. Even at the Allegro, the change in pace is inconspicuous. What of course changes is the character of the solo parts—now entirely in quaver triplets. The one, clear tempo change is for the Adagio (5 cycles of the Passacaglia theme). Grandiose!

At this point, I should mention the audio / acoustic quality of this part of the CD “La Bellezza”, which is outstanding throughout. Sound / sonority, acoustic balance, spatiality, transparency are all excellent and leave nothing to wish for. Executive producers: Lina Tur Bonet and Michael Sawall; recording artistic direction: Florent Olivier.

Partia VII in C minor, C.68 for 2 viole d’amore (Harmonia artificio-ariosa 1696)

Biber, Violin Sonatas 1681 — Lina Tur Bonet (CD cover)

Lina Tur Bonet, Valerio Losito, Musica Alchemica

The viola d’amore was popular at baroque times, but never attained the degree of standardization of instruments in the violin family. For example: there are instruments with 6 and 7 strings (not counting the sympathetic strings), and the tuning was typically adjusted for a specific piece (scordatura). Here, Biber wrote for two identical 6-string instruments, tuned c, g, c’, e♭’, g’, c”. Here’s a glimpse at the sheet music (Nettl & Reidinger, 1956):

H.I.F. Biber, Partia VII, C.68, first bars
H.I.F. Biber, Partia VII, C.68, first bars

See above for further explanations on Biber’s scordatura scores.

I. Praeludium: Grave Presto — Adagio — Presto — Adagio — Poco Presto — Più Presto — Adagio — Presto

In Partia V was somewhat closer to “generic baroque music”, except for the Passacaglia, where Biber clearly expressed himself in his personal style. Partia VII is rather different—not just because it exploits the specific sonorities of the viola d’amore: from the first moments on, this is “undeniably Biber”. Most of the movement features a drone (initially on c, organ and violone or viola da gamba). As in Partia V, the two instruments mostly alternate in imitations of a large variety of highly inventive motifs. The many tempo annotations are an indication for the richness of this movement: a kaleidoscope of imitations, with elements of stylus fantasticus.

II. Allamande

In contrast to the Praeludium, the Allamande is more “organized”, with an AABB structure, as also movements III & IV. And there is no drone, but an autonomous continuo bass line (organ, violone, theorbo), harmonized on the lute. Especially in the repeats, the two soloists imitate each other with a finely attuned set of extra ornaments.

III. Sarabande

Another movement in AABB form. Not surprisingly, here, the repeats are much richer in extra ornaments, and the lute in the continuo proves the ideal complement to the two solo instruments, mediating between these and the bass line.

IV. Gigue: Presto

Capricious in its punctuated rhythm throughout, even in the bass line. In the latter, extra rhythmic clarity is achieved through the theorbo. With the short, staccato-like articulation, this movement exposes the rich internal resonances of the viola d’amore. At the same time, one can sense the harmonious “interaction” with the acoustics / reverberation.

V. Aria

The Aria expands the form to ABBCC. It is of course not dramatic. Nevertheless, the “vocal” quality of the melody lines contributes to the impression of a rich and beautiful, often intimate duet on stage: there is a narration, whereby the course of action is left up to the imagination of the listener. A unique movement in this recording!

VI. Trezza

Trezza (or treccia) is Italian for “braid, plait, tress”. The movement differs from the previous ones, in that it is in AABBCC form and does (almost) not work with imitations, but with echo effects. Mostly, the two viole d’amore play in synchrony. It is a sequence of 1-bar motifs, most starting with a semiquaver figure. A joy- and playful intermezzo!

VII. Arietta variata — Presto

The Arietta is a theme of 4 + 4 bars, just in the basso continuo, followed by 13 variations. It’s a Passacaglia: the theme and the first 10 variations are repeated, the last three are not. The Presto mark is on variation 8. Variations 2, 8 (Presto) up to 10 use canon-like imitations, the final three variations include some imitation elements, too. I’m not exaggerating by stating that this movement is another masterpiece!

Sonata for Violin and Basso continuo No.81 in A major

Biber, Violin Sonatas 1681 — Holloway (CD cover)

John Holloway, Aloysia Assenbaum, Lars Ulrik Mortensen

Biber never published this Sonata No.81 in A major. However, a manuscript exists in a library in Kroměříž (Czech Republic, a.k.a. Kremsier). In the booklet to his CD, John Holloway suggests that this sonata originated in a period that led up to the Sonatae Violino solo 1681. It may even have been part of a stock of sonatas from which Biber selected the 8 works for the collection “Sonatae Violino solo 1681“.

I. Adagio
[1’06”] A calm, almost intimate opening, with beautiful harmonies blooming up in simple double-stop motifs.

II. Presto
[1’04”] Biber takes up the central motif from the introduction and expands it into a joyful, springy solo with jumping, punctuated rhythms. Occasionally, the small note values appear to lack some clarity, next to the accented notes.

III. (Adagio)
[3’05”] A joyful arioso above an organ drone! This breaks out into an extended free and jubilant solo, virtuosic, even brilliant, and ravishingly beautiful single- and double-stop passages. The organ drone persists. It does eventually move / modulate to a different tone. A marvelous movement!

IV. Aria & Variatio
[7’00”] The Aria feels like having a Scottish / Celtic “accent”. Is this due to melodic elements? Specific harmonies? Or just a slightly melancholic undertone? The variations are rich, highly inventive, very diverse and contrasting, often rather virtuosic. In contrast to the jubilant highlights, the ending is surprising: the continuo is retracting into isolated chords, while also the violin isolates short motifs, as if it was to disappear behind a curtain. John Holloway’s playing is flawless—particularly also in the intonation.

One minor quibble with this sonata: acoustically, I just wish Lars Ulrik Mortensen’s excellent harpsichord playing would receive a little more attention. That said: the organ drones are discreet enough in this recording. Overall, the sonata is a marvelous experience!

This is the only sonata that I listened to without having a score / sheet music at hand.

Sonata for Violin and Basso continuo No.84 in E major, C.108

Biber, Violin Sonatas 1681 — Holloway (CD cover)

John Holloway, Aloysia Assenbaum, Lars Ulrik Mortensen

The “big Sonata No.84 in E major”, as John Holloway calls it in his booklet, is included with a collection that was created around 1690 in Vienna. John Holloway states that the history of tradition of this sonata, as well as the extraordinary brilliance of the violin part (which surpasses the refinement of the composition) indicate that this must have been one of Biber’s showpieces. Holloway speculates that this may have been the sonata that Biber played in 1677 for Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor (1640 – 1705), which then led the emperor to award him the “Golden Chain of Grace”.

Note that the only annotation in the score is the initial Adagio. The splitting into movements, as well as the respective movement titles / annotations are part of the interpretation.

I. Adagio
[3’51”] Another, miraculous sonata! It opens with a solemn, 7-bar recitative above a drone on e—full of meaning and expectation. The violinist then delves into an amazing, rich, and virtuosic fantasy—just he and the single drone on e, the harpsichord is pausing. There’s no double-stop playing, for once, but rapid passages / figures up to the highest positions. Only in bars 26 – 29, where the harmonies modulate to A major (and the drone then steps down to A), organ and harpsichord discreetly accompany the modulation. The violin then resumes its jubilant, “free flying” solo. In bar 39, the violin starts an audacious, adventurous, 2-bar modulation, ending in B major. The drone then remains on B—and alone. Only in the short, accelerating “coda” (bars 48 – 55), the harmonization sets back in, ending in the final cadence to E major.

II. (Allegro)
[3’10”] The “(Allegro)” is found in the booklet. However, to me, this rather is a Loure (i.e., a slow Gigue), with its measured, punctuated triple meter (6/8), beautiful, with playful, arpeggiated chord playing on the violin. John Holloway suspects that at Biber’s time, this (along with the themes for movements III and IV) was a popular folk song. That Loure serves as theme for a set of virtuosic variations with ascending technical challenges. These end in cascades of hemidemisemiquaver scales before the movement ends with segments of the original theme. Given the virtuosic and fast variations, I doubt that there are violinists playing this Allegro!

III. (Passacaglia)
[2’52”] The third movement opens with another folk song in AABB form (8 + 8 bars, 3/4), entirely using double-stop playing on the violin. The subsequent Passacaglia takes the bass of the first part of the theme (e–d♯–e—B–G♯–A–(G♯–)B–E) as foundation, going through 2 x 2 passes (each variation in the solo is 16 bars). The movement closes with the full theme da capo. One quibble: the harpsichord once more deserves more presence, at least in the da capo. And: in that last part (especially for the first 8-bar period), the simple, note-for-note, chordal harmonization feels a bit frugal.

IV. (Gavotte)
[1’51”] John Holloway calls the theme for this third set of variations a Gassenhauer. Wikipedia states “A “Gassenhauer” usually denotes a (normally simple) tune that many people (in the Gassen) have taken up and sing or whistle for themselves, the tune as such having become rather independent from its compositional origins“. The melody (this time in the bass) is just two bars and is repeated like for a prayer mill. Above that, the violin is fantasizing in an abundantly inventive, witty, even joking set of variations. One might call the 2-bar theme (e–A–B–G♯–A–B–E) and its endless repetitions simplistic, if not trivial—nevertheless, it is hard not to be fascinated by the irresistible pull of the music, and—just as much—John Holloway’s interpretation. Pure joy, fun, and pleasure!

V. (Finale)
[1’25”] Just as the first movement started with a solemn, calm melody above a drone, the last movement begins with very simple, modest motifs above a drone (here on A). The drone persists up to the penultimate bar, while the violinist excels with a cadenza consisting of an accelerating set of rapid passages, before finally reaching the last bar in a cadence to E, concluding with an arpeggiando fermata.

John Holloway certainly is correct in stating that the compositorial refinement is secondary in this sonata. The solo part, however, deploys a stunning richness in fantasy and inventiveness, and the result is a unique, fascinating masterpiece in its own right.


Biber, Violin Sonatas 1681 — Lina Tur Bonet (CD cover)

Lina Tur Bonet, Musica Alchemica

5-star rating

Here’s how I would characterize Lina Tur Bonet’s recording(s) of Biber’s sonatas: the artist lives the frenzy of (quasi) improvisation and stylus fantasticus. The recording fascinates with its richness in colors, life, vivacity. I admire the audacity: the interpretation is often daring, willing to take risks, exploring the full scope in techniques / technical possibilities, and expression. Lina Tur Bonet may not aim for polished perfection—nevertheless, her interpretation demonstrates technical and musical mastership. An enthralling recording, full of beauty and joy.

Coming from John Holloway’s recording, some may suspect excessive instrumentation. Yes, the richness in colors and sonorities is enormous. However, after studying the interpretation (with score / sheet music), I would firmly say that Lina Tur Bonet has done the necessary research and is respecting the sources. And with her experience on baroque music, there is nothing in her interpretation that does not feel “properly baroque”.

The audio / acoustic quality deserves a special mention: it is outstanding throughout. Sound / sonority, acoustic balance, spatiality, transparency are all excellent and leave nothing to wish for. Needless to say, that the quality of both the instruments, as well as the mastership of all musicians play a pivotal role in this. Executive producers: Lina Tur Bonet and Michael Sawall; recording producer: Jean-Daniel Noir.

Fascinating, fabulous — and strongly recommended, if not a must for lovers of Biber’s music, or of early baroque music in general!

Biber, Violin Sonatas 1681 — Holloway (CD cover)

John Holloway, Aloysia Assenbaum, Lars Ulrik Mortensen

4-star rating

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber’s violin sonatas have a recording history that goes back to the mid-1960’s and beyond. Still, for the Sonatae Violino solo 1681, John Holloway’s recording is a pioneering achievement. And it demonstrates technical mastership and the artist’s extensive experience with the interpretation of baroque music.

In comparison with Lina Tur Bonet’s recording, John Holloway’s appears somewhat more controlled, less adventurous and daring, maybe featuring less extravaganza. With his decision to stick with the simple accompaniment of organ and harpsichord, the interpretation cannot compare to Lina Tur Bonet’s in richness in sound / sonorities, in color scope.

What about the recording quality? The sound balance is not always ideal: the harpsichord is often too much in the background, the violin very much in center, dominating. And occasionally, organ drones are almost oppressive.

Overall, in terms of recording technique (sound / sonority, acoustic balance, spatiality, transparency) John Holloway’s CD “Unam Ceylum” cannot match up to Lina Tur Bonet’s “Biber Violin Sonatas (Nuremberg, 1681)”. I personally also think that musically and technically, Lina Tur Bonet’s interpretation has the edge over John Holloway’s older recording.


Overall (considering musical and recording qualities), I strongly recommend the featured CD with Lina Tur Bonet / Musica Alchemica. I think this is a new reference recording.

However, John Holloway‘s recording “Unam Ceylum” is not far behind and still has pioneer / reference character (now being challenged by Lina Tur Bonet). Also, its repertoire is (mostly) complementary to Lina Tur Bonet’s CD.

Therefore, I wholeheartedly recommend both CDs.


The main, featured CD in this review was kindly sent to me by the artist, Lina Tur Bonet: my heartfelt gratitude for this gift!


Chafe, E. T. (1987). The Church Music of Heinrich Biber (pp. 233–264). UMI Research Press. (Original work published 1975)

Biber, H. F. (1959). Acht Violin Sonaten mit ausgeführter Klavierbegleitung (Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Österreich, ed. Guido Adler, Vols. V/2, 11). Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt.

Nettl, P., & Reidinger, F. (1956). Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, Harmonia Artificiosa-Ariosa Diversimode Accordata (Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Österreich, Vol. 92). Österreichischer Bundesverlag.

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