Mieczysław Weinberg: Chamber Symphonies / Piano Quintet (ECM New Series 2538/39)

 

Weinberg Chamber Symphonies

Mieczysław Weinberg
Chamber Symphonies / Piano Quintet

Kremerata Baltica
Gidon Kremer principal violin
Andrei Pushkarev timpani, triangle, percussion
Yulianna Avdeeva piano
Džeraldas Bidva violin
Dainius Puodžiukas violin
Santa Vižine viola
Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė violoncello
Mate Bekavac clarinet
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conductor (Chamber Symphony No. 4)
Chamber Symphonies Nos. 1-3
Recorded live June 13, 2015 at Musikverein Wien
Piano Quintet, Chamber Symphony No. 4
Recorded June 9/10, 2015 at Latvian Radio Studio, Riga
Tonmeister: Vilius Keras, Aleksandra Kerienė
Engineer: Varis Kurmins (Riga)
Mastering by Christoph Stickel, Manfred Eicher at MSM Studio, München
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 13, 2017

Following his first examination of Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996), violinist Gidon Kremer returns with his eponymous ensemble for another album devoted to the Polish-born Soviet composer. “No other composer has entered my own and Kremerata Baltica’s repertoire with such intensity,” writes Kremer in a liner note for the album, citing the four chamber symphonies recorded here as his finest examples. Despite Weinberg’s penchant for chamber music, if not also because of it, in these pieces one finds heartbreaking intimacy.

The Chamber Symphony No. 3, op. 151 (1990), loosely transcribed from his String Quartet No. 5, opens the program’s descending first half. The string orchestra for which it is scored opens in the mode of Lento with such clarity that it feels like a mirror in which every listener is reflected in high definition. Its tactility of history finds purchase wherever it can, clawing its way slowly into the inner ear, where it nests like a dying bird. Its afterlife is marked Allegro molto, lively yet underlined by melancholy, shifting into a tutti passage of chords that teeters on the brink of decay. The Adagio that follows is Weinberg’s default state of mind, giving itself over to thoughts of fog and shadows. The cello arising from shimmering violins gifts us one of the great solos of modern music. Lastly, the Andantino, a macabre dance interspersed with surprising Baroque textures utters a transfixing farewell.

This piece and its predecessor come from a time when Weinberg was fading into obscurity. Sick and isolated, he could only watch as his friends died or emigrated beyond his reach. Still, works like these continued to be premiered and touch the lives of those fortunate as we to hear them.

Chamber Symphonies Nos. 2 and 1 are further reworkings of string quartets and both supplement new movements in their reiterated forms. The Chamber Symphony No. 2, op. 147 (1987) adds to the orchestral milieu a pounding timpani, and with it a layer of storm. It circles, dances, and flirts with romanticism even as it transcends boundaries with the ease of breathing. The second movement shifts from lacey dance to exuberant outpouring, capped by a solo violin that also figures centrally in the final Andante. The strings are gnarled like tree roots, only some of which are visible aboveground. The Chamber Symphony No. 1, op. 145 (1986) closes out the first disc, balancing the Tchaikovsky-esque textures of its first movement with the final Presto’s full-on desperation, treading the edges of collapse between them with a strange mixture of glee and fear. Although no timpani is to be heard, it may just be the most percussive of the symphonies.

The Piano Quintet, op. 18 was composed in 1944, a year into Weinberg’s settlement in Moscow, where he would spend the remainder of his life, following a harrowing escape from the Nazis in 1941. By influence of Shostakovich, it takes a five-movement structure, and is presently arranged for piano, string orchestra and percussion by Andrei Pushkarev and Gidon Kremer. The gentlest of persuasions eases us into its sound-world, brittle enough to snap at the merest hint of impropriety. In the interest of its protection, Kremer and company lend it an evenness that never ruptures, except at choice moments of catharsis. That said, there’s very little in the way of redemption. In its place are the anxieties of its faster movements, which in their headlong rushes of detail reveal many possible outs, none of which are taken until the mighty Largo that follows. Over its 14-minute duration, as much urgency as recall feeds into the final movement. Appropriately designated Allegro agitato, the latter mocks the army of time.

Last is the Chamber Symphony No. 4, op. 153 (1992). Scored for clarinet, triangle and string orchestra, and bearing dedication to composer Boris Chaykovsky as a gesture of reconciliation to their waning friendship, it was to be Weinberg’s final completed work. Its opening Lento is his crowning achievement. Here, as in all subsequent movements, the clarinet flows as if through the prism of a traumatized yet resolute soul. The second movement, a fierce Allegro molto, treats the clarinet as a voice among voices, a representative of its community, vying for attention in the push and shove of a politically overwhelmed life. Again, a cello figures sagaciously at the end, tracing wisdom born of conflict. The Adagio is another patient stroke of genius, drawn like an ink-laden brush until every last drop is elicited. The final Andantino is a ballet without dancers in which microtonal plies are front and center before collapsing into a funereal drone.

If Shostakovich, with whom he was a close friend, can be said to be pathos, then Weinberg is the pathos of that pathos. Kremer’s focus on this music is therefore more than a recovery effort, but a philosophical resurrection. Under his direction, the music leads itself, and in that spirit walks crosswise with regard to every expectation, head bowed and hand dashing across the page before the flesh expires.

András Schiff: Franz Schubert – Sonatas & Impromptus (ECM New Series 2535)

Schubert Sonatas and Impromptus

András Schiff
Franz Schubert: Sonatas & Impromptus

András Schiff fortepiano
Recorded July 2016, Kammermusiksaal H. J. Abs, Beethoven-Haus, Bonn
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Tuning and technical assistance: Georg F. Senn
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 12, 2019

“Secretly, I hope to be able to make something of myself, but who can do anything after Beethoven?”

In these words, Franz Schubert (1797-1828) at once shadowed himself against his light of inspiration and added to its fiery glow. But because artists of any type are often their worst bêtes noires, the humble interpreter would better judge his place in history, for while this music exuded from the body of its composer, it infuses every sinew and synapse of its performer. In András Schiff, Schubert finds an amplifier both in and out of time. “Schubert’s music,” notes the Hungarian-born pianist, “is the most human that I know,” and only a musician of such humanity could hold true to that doctrine.

In his own day, Schubert was filed prematurely under “recondite,” and so after the publication of his first two early sonatas he dove headlong into his crowning Winterreise, producing also in that period the Moments musicaux (see ECM New Series 2425/26) and the first Impromptus D 899. The latter were never meant to be concert pieces. “And even if we play them in a large hall today,” Schiff insists, “we have to transform that space into an intimate space.” Schiff does that, and more, in his renderings of these mosaics. From the light-footed highs to the surface-level lows and the heavenly mids between them, Schiff achieves a striking balance and dynamic spread on the Franz Brodmann fortepiano, built in Vienna circa 1820, which makes its recording debut here. In the first impromptu especially, one hears a mind thinking aloud in words that can only be captured in their absence. In place of letters, Schubert writes with feelings—not impressions, but fully formed emotional landscapes. As lines diverge, Schiff handles their individuality with surgical care. In both the second and third impromptus, he carries across a sense of water running through a forest, while in the last enhancing the modesty reflected in the epigraph above.

The Sonata in c minor D 958 was written in 1828, just two months before Schubert’s death. Its Allegro plunges us into a world all its own, crafted as much by shadow as by light. Schiff’s rhythmic sensitivity is righteously attuned and reveals a difference of reiteration rarely matched. The mournful Adagio finds its promise fulfilled by asking for no promise to be fulfilled. Its eternal spiral of questioning and answering becomes a private dialogue for composer and performer alike. A Menuett gives us respite from the weight of darkness, turning to a memory as a rift in the fabric of time that cannot be brought closer no matter how far we reach. The final Allegro, which Schiff calls a “dance of death,” is a mad, desperate rush into turbulent night. At any given moment, it threatens to unchain itself, but manages to hold its integrity, even as it unspools to a thread of its former glory.

The Three Piano Pieces D 946, essentially impromptus by another name, are among Schubert’s most adroit. The first of these, in e-flat minor, appeared at Schiff’s fingers previously on ECM in his Encores After Beethoven, and enthralls even more in the present rendition. This piece has it all: drama and introspection, virtuosity and humility, life and death. The second is an inversion of the first, achieving some of its densest textures in the middle between a head and tail of airy resolution, while the final impromptu jumps through one thematic hoop after another until it sticks its landing perfectly.

Schiff is keen to observe that Schubert, even in his brief life, wrote more than 600 lieder for piano and voice, and that even when writing for solo piano “the human voice and the song are always present.” His magnum opus, the Sonata in A Major D 959, is proof positive of this effect and is alone worth the price of admission. Its gargantuan opening is the science of poetry incarnate. At nearly 16 minutes, it floats two images for each one it sinks, and leaves us tenderized for the lachrymose Andantino that follows. If any single movement can be exhibited as proof of the fortepiano’s capabilities, this would be it. From whispers to thunder, it encompasses the full gamut with breadth of mind, and Schiff understands its mechanical heart as his own. The mood is so intense that the Scherzo opens a portal from one end of life to the other, bleeding into the concluding Rondo as if time itself were a physical substance to be waded through on the way to eternity.

As Misha Donat writes in his liner essay, “In the beauty of his material and the magical effects of elliptical key change…it must be said that Schubert actually surpassed his model.” But perhaps their relationship isn’t so much temporal as spatial, for while Schubert had himself buried close to Beethoven, the two would seem to converse from atop distant mountains even as performers of their music try to hang-glide along the currents between them without falling. And while it’s tempting to imagine what Schubert might have written had he lived beyond the tragic age of 31, that his flame caught hold of its worldly wick for as long as it did should be enough to validate the gift of its light.

Marco Ambrosini/Ensemble Supersonus: Resonances (ECM 2497)

2497 X

Marco Ambrosini
Ensemble Supersonus
Resonances

Marco Ambrosini nyckelharpa
Anna-Liisa Eller kannel
Anna-Maria Hefele overtone singing, harp
Wolf Janscha Jew’s harp
Eva-Maria Rusche harpsichord, square piano
Recorded November 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Lara Persia
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: June 21, 2019

Nyckelharpa virtuoso Marco Ambrosini returns to ECM with a project as successful as it is ambitious. In Ensemble Supersonus, he has forged a far-reaching prism through which to shine the light of his neglected forte, and by its rainbow effects a wealth of reimagined material. For Resonances, he is joined by Anna-Liisa Eller on kannel, overtone singer Anna-Maria Hefele, Wolf Janscha on Jew’s harp, and harpsichordist Eva-Maria Rusche.

The album opens with Ambrosini’s unaccompanied “Fuga Xylocopae.” As the keystone to the geometry that follows, it renders an entire world of possibilities, and from that panoply frames eleven further scenes, each more painterly than the last. In its wake, Heinrich Iganz Franz Biber’s “Rosary” Sonata No. 1 gets a chemical peel, touched by Hefele’s blinding inner-space and Rusche’s sparkling plectra. Through it all, Ambrosini’s abilities delight, touching off minutiae that one would never have guessed to be lurking in Biber’s psyche. Music by Johann Jakob Froberger (an e-minor Toccata played on square piano) and Girolamo Frescobaldi (a Prelude and Toccata with added nyckelharpa) flesh out the Biberian zeitgeist.

Although released in 2019, this album was recorded in 2015, one year after the ensemble’s present lineup cohered in a mutual search for ancient and modern music with such Baroque modes as their fulcrum. From the Medieval mysticism of Hildegard von Bingen’s O Antiqui Sancti, made manifest by Hefele’s liminal voicing, to the starkly visual writing within the group, nothing in the program is out of place. In the latter vein, Janscha contributes three compositions: Ananda Rasa, Fjordene, and Ritus. The first and last are statues come to life, actors moving across a silver screen, while the second is a Jew’s harp solo of deepening soul. Rusche adds her own: the kinetic and vivacious Erimal Nopu, a buoyant polyphony of spirits that seems inspired as much by 17th-century harmonies as by Manuel de Falla. As does Hefele, whose 2 Four 8 is a forest of overtones through which a full moon shines.

The traditional Swedish “Polska” widens the ensemble’s meeting ground like antique machinery oiled to renewal. Ambrosini sighs and sings, treating laments as messages in a bottle cracked open only in dreams. Another standout in this fantastical regard is “Hicaz Hümâyan Saz Semâisi” by Veli Dede, whose music has intersected with ECM before via Anouar Brahem’s Conte de l’incroyable amour. Its modal beauties are familiar and forever searching, thus proving that, for all its backward glances, Ensemble Supersonus is looking resolutely forward, as I hope we can to a follow-up in the future.

Julia Hülsmann Trio: Sooner and Later (ECM 2547)

Sooner and Later

Julia Hülsmann Trio
Sooner and Later

Julia Hülsmann piano
Marc Muellbauer double bass
Heinrich Köbberling drums
Recorded September 2016 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 24, 2017

Julia Hülsmann returns to ECM bearing the flag of the phenomenal trio that marked her label debut as leader. Rejoined by bassist Marc Muellbauer and drummer Heinrich Köbberling, she paints one fully fleshed image after another, leaving not a single brushstroke unnoticed. Such artistry abounds in the album’s opener, “From Afar.” One of four originals by Hülsmann, it signals a theme of itineracy, inspired in no small part by her travels with the band in North and South America, China, and Central Asia. The latter geography reveals deepest influence in “Biz Joluktuk,” a melody by a 12-year-old violinist from Kyrgyzstan named Rysbay Abdykadyrow. In addition to its melodic beauties, it’s also a quintessential example of how movement connects humanity in the spirit of allusion. Hülsmann’s “J. J.” and “Soon” are especially head-nodding tracks, sparkling like a disco balls in some cerebral night club. “Der Mond” ties a beautiful ribbon around it all for a final swing of the compass. “Thatpujai” is a standout track. This introverted homage to German jazz pianist Jutta Hipp (1925-2003), whose name was anagrammed into the present title, is built around transcriptions of Hipp’s solos and goes straight to the heart.

Köbberling and Muellbauer contribute two tunes apiece. Where the drummer’s “You & You” is a rhythmically savvy and sunlit tune brimming with welcome, “Later” is a groovier affair, replete with complex changes, superb bassing, and sumptuous piano voicings. The bassist walks an enchanting path in his “The Poet (for Ali),” as if turning the desert into a giant piece of sheet music in wait of each step to notate it. “Offen,” by contrast, flips the scales into a tropical climate and finds Hülsmann weaving her mantras one pregnant word at a time.

Rounding out the set is an arrangement of Radiohead’s “All I Need,” which by its gentle suggestions rewrites the parameters of the trio’s boundaries while also deepening them in their place.

Gary Peacock Trio: Tangents (ECM 2533)

Tangents

Gary Peacock Trio
Tangents

Marc Copland piano
Gary Peacock bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded May 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: August 25, 2017

Following the 2015 debut, Now This, Gary Peacock helms his trio with pianist Marc Copland and drummer Joey Baron once again into pristine waters. As if by force of metaphor, the trio indeed coheres like a finely made vessel in the set’s opener, “Contact.” The first of five Peacock originals, it opens with the bassist by his not-soon-to-be-lonesome, a voice with something to say. As Copland’s postmodern lyricism and Baron’s scintillating cymbals step into frame, we find ourselves moving from doorway to outside world. Throughout Peacock’s other compositions, whether in the evocative “December Greenwings” or the narrative title track, his bassing rises and falls as a city breeze while Copland fills in the footsteps of every pedestrian footprint below. And in the enthrallments of “Tempei Tempo” and “Rumblin’” he blossoms into jagged grooves that only reinforce their adhesive qualities with every rhythmic turn.

For this session, Baron pens the rightfully bubbling “Cauldron,” a sonic stew that goes down one hearty morsel at a time. His detail-rich drumming proves to be an intuitive foil for Copland’s chord voicings, as well as for Peacock’s ebullience. “In And Out” is another Baron creation that finds the drummer in lithe duet with Peacock. Copland contributes his own “Talkin’ Blues,” which by its sharp turns and fancy footwork glides over a uniquely joyous terrain.

The trio’s resplendent takes on nocturnal standards like Alex North’s “Spartacus” and Miles Davis’s “Blue In Green” show us only what masters can do with the masters when recorded by the masters, while between them breathes the freely improvised “Empty Forest.” This gentle yet no-less-formidable beast of a tune hangs its stars from every tree to replenish a foliage withered by time.

Remarkable about Tangentsis how equally each player contributes to the overall sound. One could write its roster on a wheel, spin it at any moment, and find enjoyment by focusing on whatever name it lands on. Everyone is as much a listener as a crafter of that which is heard, a chaser of the same muse whose love of communication is as indelible as the sentiments conveyed here.

Tomasz Stanko New York Quartet: December Avenue (ECM 2532)

December Avenue

Tomasz Stanko New York Quartet
December Avenue

Tomasz Stanko trumpet
David Virelles piano
Reuben Rogers double bass
Gerald Cleaver drums
Recorded June 2016, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 31, 2017

Now the windows, blinded by the glare of the empty square, had fallen asleep. The balconies declared their emptiness to heaven; the open doorways smelt of coolness and wine.
–Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles

Tomasz Stanko’s twelfth album for ECM as leader, released just shy of sixteen months before his death in 2018, is both a lean into the future and a languid dip in the past. In the former regard, one can expect a darker side of jazz to reveal its face at many turns herein. From the opening “Cloud” to the closing “Young Girl in Flower,” the Polish trumpeter and his New York Quartet don’t so much render a single circle as an ever-growing coil of them, each transitioning through iridescent colors of retrospection. In pianist David Virelles, bassist, Reuben Rogers, and drummer Gerald Cleaver he finds climatic support that opens the firmament to let in vaporous songs of resuscitation. Each is strangely thrilling, despite Stanko’s overcast writing.

Virelles keeps the barometric pressure balanced, setting the tone of “Blue Cloud” and “Bright Moon” with patience before an overflow of emotion takes place. Rogers and Cleaver add masterful waves of recall beneath Stanko’s storytelling vibe, in which the bandleader uses gestures and feelings to convey his characters’ deepest moral decisions. Like “Ballad for Bruno Schulz” and its distant cousin, “The Street of Crocodiles,” each breathes us mid-sentence into a literary world. The latter tune’s cinematic cool, in combination with Rogers’s arco drunkenness and Stanko’s back-alley flutters, is a pinnacle.

Not all is doom and gloom, however, as we’re treated to some scattered uprisings of emotion. Although still drawn from the shadows, “Burning Hot” and “Yankiels Lid” excavate the night with tools of fire, while the groovier title track feels like a lost take from Stanko’s previous effort, Wisława.

Three free improvisations fill in the gaps, each with Rogers as its fulcrum in largely duo settings. Sharing the air with Stanko in “Conclusion” and with Virelles in “Sound Space,” the bassist understands that any dream can be turned real by the flick of destiny’s wrist. Thankfully, one of those flicks loosed this album through the ether and into our receiving ears.

Sungjae Son: Near East Quartet (ECM 2568)

2568 X

Sungjae Son
Near East Quartet

Sungjae Son tenor saxophone, bass clarinet
Suwuk Chung guitar
Yulhee Kim vocal, percussion
Soojin Suh drums
Sori Choi traditional Korean percussion on “Baram”
Recorded December 2016, Stradeum Studio, Seoul
Engineer: Rick Kwan
Mixed by Nicolas Baillard, Manfred Eicher, and Sun Chung at Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Produced by Sun Chung
Release date: August 31, 2018

Saxophonist/composer/bandleader Sungjae Son and his Near East Quartet splash into ECM territory with this phenomenal debut. Joined by guitarist Suwuk Chung, singer-percussionist Yulhee Kim, and drummer Soojin Suh, he charts new paths along old maps, bringing traditional Korean music, or gugak, into the stratosphere of improvisation. It’s a unique concept not explored on the label since Then Comes the White Tiger, but with a freshness all its own. The concept is in the name, which came at the suggestion of Chung. In the guitarist’s words: “We’re all born and raised in an Eastern country, but our identity is very much Westernized. Not by choice of our own, but of the world that made us. So we can’t really say our music is from the ‘East.’ Rather, it feels like we’re standing somewhere near it.” This push and pull of identity politics is expressly felt in the set’s two Korean folk songs. Where “Mot” zooms in like a cinematic close-up on a young woman picking lotus seeds, the seafaring “Pa:do” evokes the undulation of waves, both literal and figurative. Son’s bass clarinet in the former moves full dark over desolate landscape while Suh’s drums in the latter illuminate details where few others would find purchase. The ability of both to embody what they articulate is marvellous.

In response to the question of combining traditional Korean music and jazz, Son tells me by email that for him jazz “is all about different cultures meeting together from the start. It’s only natural for me to bring something from my own cultural background into jazz that I love. East and West share the beauty of sound and the beauty of silence. As for what makes Korean traditional music distinct, I can only say that it embraces empty space instead of filling it in.” And embrace it they certainly do in “Ewha.” This opening track is a portal of welcome into a sound-world that’s equally physical and immaterial. Its mood is so initiatory that it’s all one can do to close one’s eyes against the glare of its forthrightness. It shares body heat as a way of shedding the skin of expectation for something uniquely honest.

NEQ
(Photo credit: An Woong Chul)

Just as the modern elements emphasize their ancient counterparts, so do the ancient shed light on the modern. In that respect, however, Son has little to say with regard to the Korean jazz scene: “My quartet doesn’t sit squarely in the Korean jazz scene, which is small enough as it is and has no place for outsiders like us. It hasn’t been easy, but we’ve made due by creating our own scene.” Listening to tracks like “Baram,” for which Sori Choi joins on traditional percussion, it’s impossible to disagree. The first in a handful drawn from the orally transmitted Pansori epics, it’s told from the viewpoint of a lover wishing for word from the one who has left her behind, yet whose dedication results in a fatal beating when she refuses a local magistrate. Her only hope is to reunite with her true love in another life. Kim sings with audacity and emotional integrity, embraced by a cosmic pond of guitar and lured by the percussion’s death knells. As also with the urgency of “Galggabuda” and patient intensity of “Jinyang,” each word feels like a sonorous wound. That said, Son attributes no special thematic significance to the chosen texts. “The language itself,” he says, “has its own color and rhythm that brings a different atmosphere to the music. There’s no point in understanding the meaning of the lyrics in my music.” To be sure, we can just as easily feel its pulse as if it were our own without translation.

This feeling of human connection is only enhanced by producer Sun Chung, whose gentle hand is felt by its very absence. “He never tried to guide us or anything,” recalls Son. “He just believed in our music. We recorded new songs that no one has heard before. Even we didn’t know what was going to happen. But during the recording, I felt like he already knew exactly what needed to happen. At one point I asked him, ‘Sun, why don’t you say something?’ To which he responded, ‘I’m not here to speak. I’m here to support whatever it is you want to do.” Although such freedom of expression is palpable throughout, it’s especially evident in “Garam” and “Ebyul.” Like currents flowing between islands, they make long distances seem surmountable by mere strum of guitar, brush of drum, or whisper of reed. Each is a dream turned inside out until we can step through it in reality, breathing in words as sacrifice and exhaling melody as reward.

When I ask Son what he hopes listeners will experience in this album, his answer is as straightforward as the music it describes: “Somethin’ else.”

Thomas Demenga: J. S. Bach – Suiten für Violoncello (ECM New Series 2530/31)

Demenga Bach

Thomas Demenga
J. S. Bach: Suiten für Violoncello

Thomas Demenga violoncello
Recorded February 2014, Hans Huber-Saal, Basel
Engineer: Laurentius Bonitz
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 27, 2017

The Cello Suites of Johann Sebastian Bach, like his Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, are touchstones for listeners and performers alike. In the latter sense, Thomas Demenga approaches them through an ECM lens for the second time here. Having first fragmented his traversal between 1986 and 2002 through a series of pairings with contemporary works, thereby suggesting exciting new relationships, here he uncovers intra- rather than interrelationships, moving from fundament to firmament and back again with mind and hands sculpted by experience into something unmissable.

Where some interpretations might seek to add something new, Demenga’s embrace something old, always there but too often crucified on the scoreboard of modernism. Here we encounter a return to form, if not also a form of return, in the deepest interest of music that springs eternal from Creator to creator. Referred to in Thomas Meyer’s liner essay as “every cellist’s gospel,” the Cello Suites do more than encourage rereading; they demand it. Having played these masterpieces for more than 50 years, Demenga understands that no one is ever “done” with them and that we’re all born and expire in its swaddling echoes.

In the First Suite, he carries an antique sensibility from first inhale of Prélude to last exhale of Gigue, working shadows into familiar nooks and crannies as if they constituted a physical substance. That same feeling of breath, more than metaphorical, whispers, rasps, and soliloquizes through the Second Suite’s philosophical journey. Its Prélude liquifies the heart and feeds it to another in a cycle of life that cannot be qualified by any other means than the gut strings and baroque bow with which Demenga has chosen to articulate every stroke. The Courante is strangely beautiful in its jagged denouement, while the Sarabande that follows it speaks with haunting urgency and the concluding Gigue with three-dimensional tactility.

The lithe stirrings of the Third Suite’s Prélude and Allemande form a dyad of such emotional integrity as to occupy a realm all their own. As in the famous Bourrée I & II, he dives inward for pearls of wisdom, unpolished and offered in their own shells, glorious specimens of nature whose perfection communicates in the language of imperfection. Demenga’s trills and glissandi are as surprising as they are organic, and flow of their own volition.

Says Demenga of Bach, “His music is detached from personal feelings and dramas or other events to which many composers give expression in their music. That is why his music is so pure and why it possesses, we might say, something divine.” In interest of that expression, this performance is made all the more solitary for its attention to dance-informed structures. This is especially evident in the program’s second half, which through the prism of the Fourth Suite shines a light striated with as much solemnity as exuberance. From the throaty Prélude unspools a narrative of timeless impulses. In the Allemande and Courante that follow, one can feel the soul of a viola da gamba squeezing through the strings, as if the latter were portals of mastery to which our ears must seem as eyes hungry for vistas beyond the known. And in the footwork of the final Gigue, the press of flesh into soil is vivid and alive.

From that sunlit scene Bach pivots into the twilight of the Fifth Suite. Here the modesty of its inception tangles in moral debate with its fleshly Courante—made all the more carnal for Demenga’s intuitive bowing—before finding solace in the blushing Gigue.

This leaves the Sixth Suite to stand as its own Book of Revelation, a scriptural culmination of all that came before it, a fulfillment of prophesies as old as they are indisputable, and which spread the good news of salvation not through words but actions.

As the opening movements—not least of all in the dizzying Prélude—suggest, we must find our own way into this music not by way of deciphering but in the knowledge of receiving a gift in and of faith. And if the finality of its Gigue is any indication, we must treat farewell as the opening of a deeper relationship with life itself, personified in every tremble of the waiting ear and reciprocated whenever we need to be reminded of purpose.

John Abercrombie Quartet: Up and Coming (ECM 2528)

Up and Coming

John Abercrombie Quartet
Up and Coming

John Abercrombie guitar
Marc Copland piano
Drew Gress double bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded April/May 2016 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistants: Thom Beemer and Nate Odden
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 13, 2017

The quartet of guitarist John Abercrombie, pianist Marc Copland, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Joey Baron, last featured on 2013’s 39 Steps, returns for the final ECM album to be released before the bandleader’s death. As if we ever needed a reminder of why his art was more than its own musical country but a continent unto itself, this gorgeous swan song fulfills that duty and then some.

Each facet of Up and Coming pays tribute to Abercrombie’s meteoric development as a musician, and by the brushwork of his bandmates renders a group portrait quite unlike any other in the business. On “Joy,” we’re introduced to their symbiosis in spades. As wind currents of guitar and piano flow over each another, they trace a cymbal-kissed shore and its trail of bass footprints. If joy abounds here in name, so does it also in spirit on “Flipside,” of which an understated brilliance showcases the quartet at its straightforward best.

If “Sunday School” is a lesson in grace and doctrinal congruity, wherein Abercrombie shines with a quiet light and sparks a particularly introspective solo from Gress, the title track is a more secular campaign led by the guitarist’s liquid-mercury call to arms. In likeminded spirit, Copland contributes two tunes written for this session. Where “Tears” rows a classically inflected river that finds Abercrombie and Gress wielding the most delicate of improvisational oars, “Silver Circle” elicits a funk-infused passion.

Channeling Bill Evans in their rendition of the Miles Davis standard “Nardis,” the band begins without rhythm, floating in reverie before landing into sunlit fields. And there we find Abercrombie cartwheeling away in “Jumbles.” Here, as until now, Baron’s splashing cymbals are the leitmotif of a palpable scene.

It goes without saying that this album’s title is most ironic, given that such playing can only be forged by those who’ve been around the block more than a few times. From beat one to none, Up and Coming is a fitting end to an unparalleled legacy—one, I sincerely hope, of more in the wings of ECM’s archives.

JAQ
(Photo credit: Bart Babinski)