Thomas Demenga plays Bach/Carter (ECM New Series 1391)

 

Thomas Demenga
plays works of J. S. Bach and Elliott Carter

Thomas Demenga cello
Hansheinz Schneeberger violin
Philippe Racine flute
Ernesto Molinari clarinet
Paul Cleemann piano
Gerhard Huber percussion
Jürg Wyttenbach conductor
Recorded October 1988 and April 1989, Zürich
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In this, the first of Thomas Demenga’s Bach cycle for ECM, the ever-adventurous cellist pairs one suite of the Baroque master with the works of a master of a rather different sort: the American composer Elliott Carter.

We begin with Bach’s Suite Nr. 3 in C-Dur für Violoncello solo, BWV 1009, a crowning jewel in solo instrumental literature. The Prelude glows with an improvisatory spirit, which Demenga captures with his usual tasteful flair. The Allemande dances lithely through a hall of contrapuntal bliss, while the Courante skips and slides like an exuberant child without a care in the world, leading us into a lilting Sarabande. The double Bourée is one of the most beloved moments in the Bach suites and blurs here with vivacious speed. The closing Gigue weaves is mercurial song with expert care, leaving us fully prepared for the imminent journey through the world of Carter.

Esprit rude, Esprit doux (1983) for flute and clarinet is a playful romp in distorted fields, where unfinished phrases grow in place of flowers and the wind blows only erratically. Enchanted Preludes (1988) for flute and cello trills and plucks its unsteady way through a wide open sea. Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi (1984) for solo violin, now part of the Four Lauds, is as robust and neoclassical as the music of the Italian composer to whom it is dedicated. But the real treat here is the 1983 Triple Duo, a more formidable and complex work than the rest combined, for combine them it does, and then some. Scored for three duos—comprised of flute/clarinet, piano/percussion, and violin/cello—this piece is classic Carter. Its wily acrobatics twist and twirl with the grace of an intoxicated gymnast. The effect is like the striations of earth visible in an archaeological dig: what appears to be a random zigzag of tones and materials takes on a staggering unity in the larger context of time. One motif is quickly usurped by another, even as a third has already come and gone. This game of hide-and-seek continues for twenty minutes, ending as uncertainly as it began. As with much of Carter’s prolific output, we are left with more questions than answers, yet we never feel cheated, given as we are a veritable stockpile of musical information to sift through to our great delight.

The recording here is meticulous as always. The Bach is awash with warm reverb and sounds spectacular, while the Carter invites the listener with a more pressing immediacy. One can speak the world of Bach, but Carter’s music is surely not to be overlooked. Its fluidity and inextinguishable verve always make for a refreshing experience. Like the most intuitive sketches, it just manages to hold its shape in a jumble of possibilities. Which brings us back to Bach. “What’s the connection?” we might ask. Rather than attempt a feeble answer, I leave you with the words of Heinz Holliger, whose open letter says it far better than I ever could:

Although BA and CA coexist so peacefully beside each other in the alphabet, I am afraid that when the first jagged flashes of flute and clarinet rend the serene C major skies of Bach’s Gigue, your hand will rush to switch off the record player. I hope my plea does not come too late to stop this from happening. It would be such a shame if one fateful turn of the knob were to close off the new and fascinating sound-world just opened to you by those first flashes. Lie back and relax, listen, look, feel and remember the future; try to foresee the past. Let Zeus throw down from the new Olympus those shattering bolts of sound. Let the purifying spiritual storm (not just Esprit rude, Esprit doux) rage around you. You will be richly rewarded.

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