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.

Thomas Demenga review for Sequenza 21

My latest review for Sequenza 21 is of Thomas Demenga’s recent concert at Weill Recital Hall. The concert, given in celebration of his new ECM recording of the Bach cello suites, paired two of those suites with works by Elliott Carter and B. A. Zimmermann. Click the photo below to read on.

Demenga-Thomas_-photo-by-Ismael-Lorenzo
(Photo credit: Ismael Lorenzo)