In many ways the image also seems iconic of Heinrich Biber’s Missa Christi resurgentis, recorded here by the English Concert under the direction of Andrew Manze. The Mass itself is for large forces—two vocal choirs, a wind choir of trumpets, cornetti, and trombones, and a choir of strings—all deployed in a rich antiphonal array. The Küsel engraving also documents the divided placement of musicians in the cathedral’s galleries, and certainly the Mass would seem well served by this model.
Biber spent the vast majority of his career in the service of Prince Bishops, first at Kremsier where the bishop, Karl, Count Liechtenstein-Kastelkorn of Olomouc, maintained a strong interest in music—the library there remains a rich trove of Biber’s works—and later at Salzburg, where Biber served the Archbishop Maximilian Gandolph, Count Khüenberg and his successors for over three decades.
The Missa Christi resurgentis likely dates from early in Biber’s time at Salzburg, with a possible performance in the Cathedral at Easter of 1674. The festal circumstance of the liturgical occasion naturally would prompt a splendid display, but equally so would the princely context of the bishopric itself. (The bent towards splendor is perhaps most dramatically seen in a slightly later work, the fifty-three-part Missa Salisburgensis, now thought to be most likely by Biber, and probably performed in 1682.) The Easter Mass presents big swaths of color in alternation with more figural, smaller textures, where instruments and voices are in dialogue among themselves, as well as with the larger textures. Reflecting Biber’s status as a great violin virtuoso, the instrumental parts are prominent here with extended interludes and also in counterpoint with the voice, as in the compellingly intertwined writing of the Benedictus. Moreover, the prominence of trumpets here underscores not only the celebrative nature of Easter, but additionally the courtly ethos of the bishopric. The effect is dazzling! As is the performance. The choir, an ensemble of soloists, leans towards color and vibrancy rather than homogeneity, and given the emphasis on splendor and variety, that priority seems well chosen. The instrumental playing is highly polished, attaining both a high degree of elegance and verve. There is the occasional stylistic oddity, however. For instance, the solo trumpets have an odd tendency to push weak beats into strong ones, and thus seem to undermine a characteristic rhythmic hierarchy. That said, the trumpet playing remains brilliant and glorious, with a fine command of high range, passage work, and ornamental detail.
The recording includes a large number of sonatas in addition to the mass. In part, this reflects Biber’s own instrumental interests, but it also reminds of the degree to which instrumental music figured in festal liturgies. Biber’s sonatas are well represented here, but perhaps the best of the lot is that by Heinrich Schmelzer, the twelfth sonata from his 1662 Sacro-profanus concentus musicus. With grand writing for winds, its sumptuous tuttis, toe-tapping dance figures, ornamental passage work, and forays into the high register are gratifyingly memorable.
Manze and the English Concert evoke the splendor of seventeenth-century Salzburg with great flair. And in so doing, they continue to confirm that the English Concert remains in the front rank of period ensembles.