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Biber’s ‘Mystery’ or ‘Rosary’ Sonatas have long been considered one of the pinnacles of the Baroque violin repertoire: comprising three sets of five sonatas rounded offwith a solo Passacaglia, each sonata is rich in descriptive detail and rhetorical figures, and – in an especial challenge to both the brain and fingers of the soloist – each requires the violin to be tuned in a different way, a technique known as scordatura.

Rachel Podger’s recording has been long anticipated (not least by me), and years of study of and living with the works shine through in her radiant playing. From the opening of the first sonata and its theme and variations, this is a musical equivalent of the spiritual journey that the praying of the rosary should be: witnessing and sharing in the fears, joys and sorrows of the Virgin Mary. I found it intensely moving, particularly at the very end, when all the other instruments fall silent and the solo violin embarks on the remarkable Passacaglia — this movement returns to the opening, ‘normal’ violin tuning from the first sonatas, almost as if to signify the circular nature of the Rosary.

Spanish violinist Lina Tur Bonet’s approach to Biber, while no less backed up by preparation and forethought, is rather more spirited and gutsy than Podger’s, supported by a five-strong continuo section (including, unusually but imaginatively, harp, regal and spinet). Tur Bonet’s playing focuses on the drama inherent in Biber’s sonatas, presenting each one as an individual theatrical scena ripe with its own particular possibilities. Perhaps consciously in the same vein, her concluding Passacaglia is swifter of foot than Podger’s, dwelling less on the incessant ground bass and more on the melodic filigree woven above it. For my money, I prefer Podger’s more meditative attitude to the whole set of sonatas, but don’t discount Tur Bonet’s involved and arresting approach.

Adrian Horsewood Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Early Music Today, 2016 - ©Rhinegold Publishing