Thomas Demenga: Hosokawa/Bach/Yun (ECM New Series 1782/83)


Thomas Demenga

Thomas Demenga cello
Teodoro Anzellotti accordion
Asako Urushihara violin
Aurèle Nicolet flute
Heinz Holliger oboe
Hansheinz Schneeberger violin
Thomas Larcher piano
Hosokawa/Bach: Suite No. 5 recorded November 2000, Kirche Blumenstein
Bach: Suite No. 6/Yun: Espace I, Gasa recorded December 1998
Engineer: Teije van Geest
Yun: Images (produced by Radio DRS) recorded July 1985, Radio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Jörg Jecklin
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This album concludes Thomas Demenga’s Bach cycle which, begun in 1986, boldly sought out previously unimagined connections between the Baroque master’s solo cello suites (here, Nos. 5 and 6) and later visionaries. At every step along the way, Demenga has forced not a single hair of his bow in an arbitrary direction, instead finding in each pairing of works and composers a web of simpatico relationships.

Demenga plays the Bach suites a full whole tone down from modern pitch, a tuning contemporaneous with the time of their composition. He even uses unwound strings for a noticeably rawer sound. The Prélude of No. 5 is particularly visceral for it, those opening groans rising from the root of our expectations with withered leaves and rustling secrets. The Courante of the same no longer skips but struggles in an attempt to free itself from the swamps. The Sarabande, however, sings in a way I’ve never known it to before or since. The famous No. 6 Prélude also retains much of its inherent light and bridges over into one of the more heartfelt Allemandes on record. The penultimate Gavotte is also notable for its rustic edge. These are unlike most renditions out there, and for that reason may divide listeners. Either way, I feel as if I have spilled enough virtual ink in Bach’s name to leave my impressions at that and turn to what is most remarkable about this release: the works of Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa and his mentor, the late Korean composer Isang Yun.

Of Hosokawa’s music, Oswald Beaujean has said, “These sounds, to be sure, never appear in the form of musical imitation. Instead, they are reduced to their essence and always retain something deeply artistic.” And indeed as we wrap ourselves in the silvery veils of In die Tiefe der Zeit (Into the depths of time) for cello and accordion (1994/96), we may not help but feel the ground falling away at our feet. The music pulses like a dying body, a light blinking through a gauze curtain. The overall sound is akin to a Japanese mouth organ with a harmonic outlier skirting the edges of its reedy sound. In it we hear a story of famine, of broken families, of burned villages, of people torn from their places of worship. The accordion (played to weeping perfection by Teodoro Anzellotti) shows us the way through this wreckage, so that we might sit before a cross, steeped in the lessons of trauma.

Similarly, the Duo for violin and cello (1998) shows a propensity for swelling, silences, and pauses, though it is far more agitated—a stage of denial that circles an indefinable center. At some moments the instruments seem intent on filling up as much space as they can while at others they beg for that space to fill them in return. This asymptotic push toward silence is a blessing of contemporary classical music, at once sharpening our ears to the world of the microscopic and abolishing the prescriptive master narratives of our histories in favor of fragments. The recording is accordingly porous, attuned to mid- and high-range sounds.

Winter Bird (1978) for violin solo is something of a reprieve from the weighty emotions of all that precedes it. With it Hosokawa manages to bring the subtlety of the shakuhachi to those four humble strings as snatches of melodic energy hop and warble in a cold gray sky brimming with the promise of snow.

Yun’s sound-world is one step removed from time. The works presented here come to us already affected by tortured political past from a man who struggled with his “Eastern” origins and the decidedly “Western” musical paradigms into which he was indoctrinated as a classical composer. Yet these paradigms crumbled as he began to redefine himself in the serial theory of the Darmstadt School, and it was in that aleatoric openness and dematerialization that he came into his own.

Gasa (1963) for violin and piano is a fine example of his holistic approach. Its balance of disparate languages is precisely what makes it grow. This small slice of intrigue trembles with delicate inversions and implosions, a tone-setting specimen under the microscope, dying for self-awareness.

Espace I (1992) for cello and piano, on the other hand, unravels itself in threads of equal thickness and, being the most recent of Yun’s works surveyed here, reveals a composer at the highest stage of personal development. This piece is more uniformly weighted, for where the counterbalances add up to a denser harmony in Gasa, here the dynamics are pockmarked, fading as the piano grumbles like a belly in want of sustenance.

Images (1968) for flute, oboe, violin, and cello brings the project to an enigmatic close. This music takes shape in block chords and releases embryonic tendrils of life into starry ether. Each tone is given life and therefore the potential to occupy space. The combination of instruments is quite effective, all the more so for the committed musicianship under its employ. Like the album as a whole, it shapes itself as if in dire need of contradiction, turning the mirror just so, thereby allowing us to see that the faces we thought we knew were really just reflections all along.

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