Thomas Demenga plays J. S. Bach/B. A. Zimmermann (ECM New Series 1571)

Thomas Demenga
J. S. Bach/B. A. Zimmerman

Thomas Demenga cello
Thomas Zehetmair violin
Christoph Schiller viola
Recorded February/July 1995
Engineer: Terje van Geest
Produced by Manfred Eicher

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven.

Cellist Thomas Demenga continues his Bach project by juxtaposing the Baroque master’s d-minor Suite No. 2 with the work of Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970), one of the most important non-Darmstadters after World War II. As ever, Demenga makes a convincing argument for the pairing (interestingly enough, most of the criticism of Demenga’s project sees the Bach as filler). In this case, Zimmermann is something of an effortless choice, for his fondness of quotation and respect for tradition were at the heart of his artistry. His approach to time in this regard was particularly significant, drawing on intersections of influence through a wide range of trends and idioms.

Thus do we find ourselves in the comforting waters of Bach’s generative whispers from the moment we dive in. For this performance Demenga adopts the approach of a viola da gamba player (to greatest effect in his raspily inflected Courante). This sound draws out the music’s inherent gaseousness, in which one feels something dark and cosmic taking shape. Demenga’s notecraft ensures that every molecule feels connected through a legato of silence. He digs as deep as he can for those distinct Bach lows, plows double stops as if they were fertile fields, and maintains subtle independence of line in the Sarabande. He bows the Menuets as if with shadows, then elicits one of the finer renderings of the Gigue I’ve yet heard, striking a fine balance between jubilation and regret.

The boldness of this architecture may seem an ill fit to Zimmermann’s sonatas, which despite their meticulous scoring also call for an improvisatory approach. This puts the musician in a potentially compromising space, though if anyone is up to the challenge, it’s Demenga. Many of Zimmermann’s works were considered unplayable when first written, the Cello Sonata of 1960 not least of all. Drawing from his usual pool of spatial and temporal concerns, the piece moves beyond the Romantic notion of cello as vox humana and into the realm of speech, action, and embodiment. In his liners, Demenga notes a particularly difficult passage in the first movement, which encompasses three distinct time-layers: “while the upper voice, played on the bridge, produces a continuous ritardando, the middle one is the most striking, because of its very large range and numbers of notes played pizzicato, and then the lowest, played on the nut of the bow, sounds like a scarcely perceptible accelerando.” Despite its brevity, unpacking the finer implications thereof took Demenga weeks to perfect.

That said, like all walls it can be, and is, overcome in such a way as to render those difficulties invisible and meaningless. It is a testament to his playing that the potentially distracting technicalities of this music become vital mechanisms to their own forgetting. In addition, the more the music progresses, the more one realizes that its virtuosity stems not only from the obvious difficulties, but more importantly from the way the performer must treat every cell as its own motivic entity while maintaining a sense of continuity (as in the “Fase” movement). Between the boldly intoned opening and the ethereal resolutions of “Versetto” we feel the cellist walking the edge of our Umwelt, stitching a morpheme for every step like a bead into patchwork.

Before this we are treated to two nearly intriguing sonatas. The Violin Sonata of 1951 was written after the composer’s concerto for the same. Demenga’s conceit is strengthened by a B-A-C-H cipher and likeminded spirit (notably in the Toccata). From the Paganini-esque heartbeat to the dramatic pizzicato slap that closes it, this is a tapestry of musical lines that is sure to delight. Christoph Schiller makes delicate work of the 1955 Viola Sonata thereafter and undoes a few of the frays left dangling. Subtitled “To the song of an angel,” the one-movement sonata was written in memory of the composer’s daughter Barbara, who died soon after her birth. This self-characterized “chorale prelude” is based on Gelobet seist Du Jesu Christ and tracks a pseudo-scientific journey of private inquiries. At times the instrument duets with its own implications, while at others it shatters itself into a hundred pieces.

This program is about nothing if not intimacy. Not only by virtue of the solo repertoire—Zimmermann himself believes the solo to be the only way by which one may access an instrument’s “almost inexhaustible power”—but also because of the way in which that repertoire speaks through the hands of such capable musicians. This is no-frills playing of music that, while at times distorted, rings forever crystalline in our memory of it.

<< Eleni Karaindrou: Ulysses’ Gaze (ECM 1570 NS)
>> Dave Holland Quartet: Dream Of The Elders (ECM 1572)

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