Thomas/Orazbayeva/Railton: Three Or One (ECM New Series 2640)

Three Or One

Fred Thomas piano
Aisha Orazbayeva violin
Lucy Railton violoncello
Recorded 2012/2018
University of Huddersfield,
courtesy of Pierre-Alexandre Tremblay
Recording and mixing engineer: Alex Bonney
Balance engineers: Pierre-Alexandre Tremblay
and Rob Sutherland (trios),
Elliott Parkin (solos)
Recording producer: Fred Thomas
Cover photo: Manos Chatzikonstanzis
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 22, 2021

Three Or One documents the prismatic transcriptions of pianist Fred Thomas, who for this project dips his fingers into the font of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Orgelbüchlein. He adds to that unfinished book of organ chorales and canons a selection of vocal movements and other Bachiana, lovingly sequenced by producer Manfred Eicher. As revealed in a liner note, Thomas sought to “subvert the associations of the piano trio (so remote from Bach) and induce a hushedness that I heard in his compositions.” Bringing said trio to life are violinist Aisha Orazbayeva and cellist Lucy Railton, whose sense of color, space, and time humble the proceedings to a scriptural level.

The opening chorale, “Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ” (BWV 649) gives majesty to the very air as if it were only a medium for melody. Such presence is strong yet yielding throughout, as most apparent in the organ pieces. Of these, “Herr Christ, der ein’ge Gottes Sohn” (BWV 601) is especially touching for its heartfelt composition and centuries-delayed interpretation. “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” (BWV 639) is another spiritual well from which is drawn the water of life itself.

The arranging is as sensitive as the playing. Whether in the delicate cello pizzicato of “Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt” (BWV 637) or the sustained violin lines of “Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott” (BWV 721), one can feel the close-eyed bliss of the creative process in both directions. The program offers solo piano interpretations as well, including a flight of four cantata arias and a sinfonia. In these are light-footed grace, intensifying passion, geometric wonder, and childlike whimsy all rolled into a holistic package.

Culminations of these signatures are found in the shining beacons of “Liebster Jesu, wir sind heir” (BWV 633), in which the strings blend like siblings while the piano sermonizes as if to a congregation of three, and “O Gott, du frommer Gott” (BWV 767), in which the violin sings as if a choir of one. Perhaps, this is a hidden nuance of the album’s title, referring not only to the number of musicians but also an evangelical diversity. Another doctrinal nugget is “Gott, durch deine Güte” (BWV 600), in which a closely miked violin played sul ponticello fills the left channel with birdlike movements.

We can be sure that everything gained here is the result of something lost. Hence the poignancy of what we are hearing: the cycle of birth and death that allows these beauties to exist in the first place. We can feel history coming together as much as separating, working to define the sounds through equal parts memory and unknowability. Notes Thomas: “Bach set out to discover, not create, the musical rules of the universe.” Indeed, there is much to discover in these hymns, sung before we could ever sing them.

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