Thomas Demenga plays Bach/Veress (ECM New Series 1477)

Thomas Demenga
plays works of Johann Sebastian Bach and Sándor Veress

Hansheinz Schneeberger violin
Tabea Zimmermann viola
Thomas Demenga cello
Recorded December 1991 at Kirche Seon, Switzerland
Engineer: Teije van Geest
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Although this album is the second of five on which cellist Thomas Demenga boldly pairs the cello suites of J. S. Bach with chamber works from modern composers, it was the last to reach my ears. As a longtime admirer of Sándor Veress—whose music I discovered, no less, on Heinz Holliger’s champion recording for ECM—I was excited to sit down and mull over this disc at long last.

Under Demenga’s bow, Bach’s Suite No. 1 for Solo Cello in G Major flickers with candlelit intimacy, honed like the wood from the instrument through which it emotes in that distinct and mineral tone. One imagines the room where it was first practiced, walls dancing in a quiet play of light and shadow: the player’s arched head, swinging hands, lithe fingers curling about the neck of the one who sings. As to the later suites, Demenga brings a unique mix of fluidity and rusticity to his sound, but above all pays attention to negative spaces in a way that any accomplished Bach interpreter must. We hear this in the pauses of the Courante and in the substantial attentions of the Sarabande, which he suffuses with a downright soulful air. And through the subtle dramatic shape he imparts to the Menuets he dances his way to a reflective brilliance in the Gigue.

With this perfect tetrahedron so thoughtfully folded before us, Veress’s 1935 Sonata for Violin may seem to break the symmetry. Yet the sonata, among Veress’s first published works, more importantly reveals an economy of notecraft on par with the Baroque master. Its slow-fast-slow structure betrays a more complex and organic geometry that begins with a jig of Bartókian proportions and seeps through the Adagio’s quicksand, only to rise again, grabbing the tail of gorgeous gypsy air into the fresh air of the final leap. Violinist Hansheinz Schneeberger, who made his ECM debut with Demenga on the latter’s first Bach pairing, plays this jewel with an intensity and focus familiar to anyone who enjoys Kim Kashkashian’s take on solo Hindemith. Despite the meager comparisons I’ve attempted to draw to other such composers, this music thrives with a forward-looking robustness all its own.

The light at the end of this tunnel comes in the form of Veress’s Sonata for Cello. Composed in Baltimore, the 1967 piece also takes a three-movement structure, this time marked “Dialogue,” “Monologue,” and “Epilogue,” which, as Holliger notes in an accompanying essay, takes us through an inner turmoil on the path toward self-liberation. For me, the most solitary movement is the Dialogue. Its dirge-like density betrays an ecstatic turmoil while keeping a hand cupped to the ear of some cherished and unrecoverable stillness. By contrast, the Monologue seems almost resolute as it traces fingers blindly through the ashes, from which the final movement rises in its own agitated way with assertion on the tongue. As a student of Veress, Holliger no doubt took on some of his mentor’s quirks, and the influence of said Epilogue rings clearly in Trema.

Violist Tabea Zimmermann joins the roster for the Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello, backing us into 1954. The 20-minute piece takes two movements, the first of which moves like molasses into a dulcet and spectral territory ahead of its time, while the second brings the patter of urgency to a journey of immense detail and brilliance.

Of this journey the lowly reviewer can make no definitive claims. Naysayers of the modern may make a delightful discovery or two along the way, even as they cling to Bach, while defenders of the twentieth century will immediately recognize that its music would be nowhere without him. Either way, I can only commend Demenga and ECM for an ongoing commitment to bring their programming alive with the benefits of (im)possibility.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s