Thomas Demenga plays Bach/Holliger (ECM New Series 1340)

Thomas Demenga
plays works of J. S. Bach and Heinz Holliger

Thomas Demenga cello
Heinz Holliger oboe
Catrin Demenga violin
Recorded September 1986, Kirche Blumenstein, Switzerland
Engineer: Jakob Stämpfli
Produced by Manfred Eicher

With this disc Swiss cellist Thomas Demenga inaugurated a five-album series, each of which pairs a different Bach cello suite (the last contains two) with more contemporary material. While one might easily see the Bach as “filler” in an otherwise intriguing series of modern selections (or vice versa), there is something refreshing about Thomas Demenga’s project that pushes it far beyond the realm of gimmickry.

First is a tripartite selection of works by the inimitable Heinz Holliger, who along with the likes of Kaija Saariaho is, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, one of the more important composers of our time. From its opening bars the Duo für Violine und Violoncello exhibits Thomas and sister Catrin Demenga’s superb dexterity and dynamic control. The music jump-starts immediately with a forceful pizzicato from the cello as the violin swells from silence like an automaton whose siren is slow and sure. After this intro the duo begins a subtle interplay of trembling leaps, foreshadowing the timid Trema soon to come. The regularity of the opening is buried here, the execution more melodic. The instruments remain relatively stationary, looking up through a canopy of notes at a vast sky. But then the violin circles above, the cello arising with it before both descend into silence, at which point they are resuscitated by the same linear melody in slightly different scales, like a transparency bumped ever so slightly out of alignment. This process is quiet at first, but suddenly accelerates, as if drawn to an invisible source of inspiration. The journey grows ever higher before reaching its plateau: an aerie of vultures whose scavenged collection lies heaped on the forest floor. The piece ends with a brief series of false starts, ending on the third escape.

Studie über Mehrklänge für Oboe solo is a classic for the instrument, and one of those rare pieces that is firmly rooted in the conceptual yet which is also “musical” and a joy to listen to (I have seen apparently conservative audiences mesmerized by its effects). The piece requires of the oboist—in this case Holliger himself—to engage not only in circular breathing almost throughout, but also to overblow the instrument, creating an array of multiphonics, which Holliger shapes into a highly compositional palette. The highlight comes with Holliger’s fluttering technique toward the end and the series of weaving tonal lines that follow, gathering speed as they are jostled from one side to the other in a wilting exploration of the woodwind’s demise. The piece fades in a single high tone, briefly exposing its constituent harmonics.

Trema für Violoncello solo is, as its title implies, a traumatic piece. Demenga handles it studiously, bringing an intensity to the playing that seems to grow from the notes themselves. The piece shivers, running even as it stumbles, hoping and waiting for that moment when all else has expired, leaving the moonlit night to carry its secrets into the dawn, when nothing but art is alive. Demenga has managed to pull off an extraordinary feat here, implying through sound and technique the entire narrative of which the music is composed. There is nothing wasted in Trema, as every note seems to connect to the last and to the one forthcoming, collapsing as a figure who can no longer face the world.

After such a draining piece we arrive at Bach’s Suite No. 4 in Es-Dur für Violoncello, and hear its counterpoint as if for the first time. Regardless of one’s familiarity with the suites, in the context of such pairings they take on a host of new colors. Demenga plays competently and without flourish, interested only in drawing out the music’s inner darkness. His playing of the Sarabande is particularly beautiful and speaks of a musician not lost, but found therein.

Of course, it is only when human involvement and intervention brings such music to our ears that we feel inclined to see it as a part of us. The trajectory of performance is determined by many choices on the part of composers, musicians, and listeners. Nothing is achievable for the solo artist without some awareness of these gaps. What distinguishes performers are the ways in which they seek to fill them. Thus, with every nuance, Demenga gives a great gift not only to us but to the composers, whose work multiplies with every listening experience.

The recording is top-notch overall, but particularly crystal clear in the Bach. We hear every finger tap and sympathetic effect, every rustle of movement that goes into its steady sound. This is a New Series classic in my book and a prime example of ECM’s often bold programming choices.

<< Edward Vesala: Lumi (ECM 1339)
>> Thomas Tallis: The Lamentations Of Jeremiah (ECM 1341 NS)

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