The English Concert/Manze, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

He was the most celebrated violin virtuoso of the baroque era, music director to the prince-archbishop of Salzburg, favourite artist of the Austrian Emperor, and composer of untold quantities of flamboyant instrumental and church music. Yet, for the next 250 years after his death in May 1704, the Bohemian-born Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber rated as little more than a paragraph in the history of violin technique.

He was the most celebrated violin virtuoso of the baroque era, music director to the prince-archbishop of Salzburg, favourite artist of the Austrian Emperor, and composer of untold quantities of flamboyant instrumental and church music. Yet, for the next 250 years after his death in May 1704, the Bohemian-born Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber rated as little more than a paragraph in the history of violin technique.

If he is now rising to something like his former glory, this is largely thanks to the period- performance movement, which has come to revel in the weird violin tunings of his so-called Rosary Sonatas, the florid brilliance of his high trumpet writing, and the antiphonal splendours of his festal Masses.

Not least among enthusiasts is Andrew Manze, the current leader of The English Concert. It was with evident pride that he introduced Biber's Missa Christi Resurgentis at the Wigmore Hall the night after giving what was almost certainly its UK premiere at Bath Festival (of which a Radio 3 recording can be heard today).

Biber was only 15 years older than Purcell, but his style seems to hark back further to the high Renaissance manner of Gabrieli and early Schütz. The Mass is laid out for two choirs and contrasting groups of strings and winds, with organ continuo. Sections tend to be brief, founded on successions of block common chords, variously scored and alternating between duple and triple time. Textures are often wondrously resonant, but the sound has to compensate for a paucity of counterpoint. Only the poignant central section of the Credo and opening of the Agnus Dei really worked out their material.

Accordingly, Manze had appealed to period practice to interpolate contrasting instrumental pieces between the sections of the Mass, running the whole 65-minute sequence through without a break. A sprightly Biber sonata for strings served as overture before choir and wind players moved to their places chanting Die Pauern Kirchfartt (The Peasants' Church Procession). And before the Credo, Manze played the "Crucifixion" Sonata No 10 from the Rosary Sonatas - though the combination of retuned violin and chamber organ produced some uncomfortable intonation. An exuberant brass sonata by Biber's older contemporary Schmelzer made a happier upbeat to the Sanctus.

Indeed, it was hard to resist the enthusiasm of all 23 performers crammed on to the stage, even if one occasionally wished for less vibrato from the singers to better match the period instruments. Then, after choir and wind players had finally processed out, Manze and his strings naughtily threw in the chaconne from Biber's Nightwatchman's Serenade, a dainty little pizzicato dance, with Peter McCarthy singing - or rather, rasping - the Nightwatchman's ditty itself. It had nothing to do with the Mass, but it delighted a capacity audience.

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