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.

(Photo credit: Ismael Lorenzo)

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.

<< The Hilliard Ensemble: Walter Frye (ECM 1476 NS)
>> John Surman/John Warren: The Brass Project (ECM 1478)

Demenga/Larcher/Anzellotti: Chonguri (ECM New Series 1914)




Thomas Demenga violoncello
Thomas Larcher piano
Teodoro Anzellotti accordion
Recorded August 2004 at Clara-Wieck-Auditorium, Sandhausen bei Heidelberg
Engineer: Teije van Geest
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

Cellist Thomas Demenga offers up a colorful program of encores in Chonguri. From the pizzicato tour de force of the title piece by Sulkhan Tsintsadze, which imitates the selfsame four-stringed instrument of the composer’s native Georgia, it’s clear we’re in for a lively and eclectic treat. Pianist Thomas Larcher accompanies Demenga for most of the program, which includes nods to the familiar and not so. Of the latter, Catalonian composer Gaspar Cassadó’s Danse du diable vert is among the more spirited pins in the album’s geographic and chronographic spread. Two Chopin nocturnes give us a taste of home, in a manner of speaking, with the c-sharp minor presented to us in one of the more beautiful arrangements one is likely to find (though I’ll always be partial to Bela Banfalvi’s). The balance here is superb. A dash of Webern keeps us on our toes, his three Little Pieces sparkling with a charm that is, I daresay, romantic. Of romance we get plenty more in the three Fauré selections sprinkled throughout, of which Après un rêve is a highlight, and in Liszt’s evocative La lugubre gondola.

Four Bach chorales, in Demenga’s arrangements, for which he is joined by accordionist Teodoro Anzellotti form the album’s roof.Sounding somewhere between an organ and a hurdy-gurdy, the sheer depth of tone from Demenga’s cello in these is inspiring.He also offers two pieces of his own, of which the programmatic New York Honk is a delightful end.

Demenga’s playing is such that one can feel the lineage that binds all of this music together into a masterful patchwork as idiosyncratic as it is (seemingly) inevitable. Such programming epitomizes the ECM New Series spirit insofar as it charts the contemporary while paying due respect to the antique in what amounts to one of Demenga’s finest recordings to date and a label landmark.

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.

Patrick and Thomas Demenga: Lux Aeterna (ECM New Series 1695)


Patrick Demenga
Thomas Demenga
Lux Aeterna

Patrick Demenga cello
Thomas Demenga cello
Recorded November 1998, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Teije van Geest
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This album is a special one for having introduced me to the awe-inspiring pathos of Alexander Knaifel. Here, the phenomenally talented Demenga brothers give their most heartfelt performance in the composer’s Lux Aeterna. It is, by no simple means, a glorious meditation on the notion of divine light. Its structure is simple: high harmonics on the cellos give way to words intoned by the musicians themselves (cast in the score as “psalm singers”) before combining with strings, so that song is produced from all aspects of the body, through gesture and through sacred vibrations. A profound and moving piece, played with utter sensitivity and a dedicated sense of direction, this title work is more than the album’s theme, but also its genesis. One cannot help but be comforted in its ethereal embrace.

We might hope this mood could be sustained throughout the entire program, but the remaining offerings are no less engaging in their own right, comprising an intriguing potpourri drawn from the duo’s longstanding repertoire. Thomas offers up his own piece, Duo? o, Du…, an insightful look into the mind of this singular (albeit twinned) musician that delights with its deep-throated croaks and delicate relay of harmonics.

French composer Jean Barrière (1707-1747) was the finest cellist of his day, but his music is hardly ever recorded. Despite its upbeat tempi and virtuosic scoring, there is solemnity to be found in his G-major Sonata No. 10. Its buoyancy presages the Mozartean paradigm by half a century and rests on laurels of comforting fluidity. At certain moments the cellos ring out in lush, sweeping harmonies, leaving the bass line to float like a ghostly implication in the corner of our mental eye. The raw Adagio plays like a viola da gamba divided into its complementary personalities and captivates with its Baroque sensibilities. The resonant space in which the album is recorded ensures the cellos are given the widest berth possible, stretching the sonata’s third movement into a majestic fabric. After this tour de force, the Demengas change gears with a piece from Swiss compatriot Roland Moser. A student of Sándor Veress and Wolfgang Fortner, Moser writes in feverish yet contained bursts, as evidenced in the dizzying pizzicati and sharp bowings of his Wendungen. A sprinkling of silence ensures that the immediacy of its drama stays true to its quieter affirmations. Barry Guy’s Redshift brings us full circle to Kniafel’s invocation of light. The title references a process by which, not unlike a Doppler effect in sound, changes the visible spectrum as distance increases. With bows a-bouncing the cellists reap a varied crop of meditations and improvisations through which a cunning rhythmic acuity is brought to fruition. We end on a lullaby, left to writhe like Odysseus strapped to the ship that threatens to sail him into a song that will mean his demise.

Schubert: Trio in Es-Dur/Notturno (ECM New Series 1595)

Franz Schubert
Trio in Es-Dur/Notturno

Jörg Ewald Dähler fortepiano
Hansheinz Schneeberger violin
Thomas Demenga cello
Recorded July 1995

ECM has nobly benefited the classical music industry by continuing to draw bold lines back to the works of Franz Schubert with consistently thoughtful performances and pairings. Although he never wrote for piano trio until his final year of life, Schubert seems to have put his all into the two masterworks that are the op. 99 and op. 100. For this major release, the latter has been paired with the often-neglected “Notturno,” published two decades after his death.

Harriett Smith calls the Trio in Es-Dur für Klavier, Violine und Violoncello op. 100, D 929 a “bridge between the trios of Beethoven and Brahms,” and was the longest ever composed (it equals, if not surpasses, the average symphony in scope) until Morton Feldman’s Trio of 1980. Penned in 1827, four years into the advancement of his syphilis, Schubert’s second piano trio came about when a close friend, Josef von Spaun, requested the piece for his wedding. Schubert would die in a matter of months after its premier, which reached his ears once before they heard no more.

The musicians superbly evoke the careful tension Schubert has worked into every phrase of the first movement. In its cosmos, one hears the voices of the stars, throttling the engine of space-time in dreamy suspension. A tinge of classicism adorns the Swedish folk song-enriched interior of the second movement, its delicate modality reflected in the pizzicato from both strings. An Austrian country-dance provides the basis for the Scherzo that follows, leading us into a massive Allegro moderato, which inventively brings back the theme of the second movement. Despite the daunting length of this and the first movement, our sense of progression never wavers. Schubert’s magical touches make exuberant experiences out of these longer narratives.

If, in the full trio, we get four worlds as one universe, in the Trio in Es-Dur für Klavier, Violine, Violoncello op. posth. 148, D 897 we get a glimpse into a newborn nebula. This single movement, dubbed “Notturno” (Nocturne) by publisher and composer Anton Diabelli, is believed to have been a rejected Adagio for the first piano trio in B flat major. As fragile as it is taut, it continues to thrive, a gorgeous offspring wrought in filigree and grace.

Jörg Ewald Dähler’s historically informed fortepiano, combined with the profoundly contemporary approaches of resident label cellist Thomas Demenga and the legendary Hansheinz Schneeberger on violin, infuses every moment of these performances with equal parts innovation and ritual. One need only listen behind closed eyes to see the images they recreate.

<< Peter Erskine Trio: As It Is (ECM 1594)
>> Misha Alperin: North Story (ECM 1596)

12 Hommages A Paul Sacher (ECM New Series 1520/21)

12 Hommages A Paul Sacher

Thomas Demenga
Patrick Demenga
Jürg Wyttenbach Conductor
Recorded June 1993, Kirche Blumenstein, CH
Engineer: Teije van Geest
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Before first encountering this recording, Paul Sacher was an unfamiliar name to me. Now that the album has been with me for fifteen years, it is a name I cannot forget. Sacher (1906-1999) was a Swiss conductor and patron of the arts who championed all of the composers represented in this 2-CD tribute. His wealth and musical acuity led him to commission some of the most defining works of the twentieth century. Without him we wouldn’t have, for example, Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta or Stravinsky’s Concerto in D. For this project, realized in commemoration of his 70th birthday, a choice group of composers were commissioned to write pieces for cello around the so-called “Sacher hexachord,” a tone row derived from Sacher’s name: Eb=Es A C B=H E D=Re. The concept is similar to that of the B-A-C-H motif (Bb=B, A, C, H=B natural), which has been incorporated into works by, among many others, Liszt, Busoni, Pärt, Webern, and Bach himself (see ECM’s Ricercar for a creative juxtaposition of the latter two). The project was originally spearheaded by Mstislav Rostropovich, but has been recorded here with requisite flair by Thomas and Patrick Demenga.

At the heart of this project is Benjamin Britten’s Tema, the most straightforward iteration of the Sacher theme. Originally, the other composers were asked to simply write variations thereof, but their ideas soon developed into full-fledged pieces in their own right. Alberto Ginastera’s Puneña No. 2, Op.45 immediately draws us in with its keening melody, crying out like a hawk losing sight of its prey. The majestic bird tears at the sky as it would the earth, eliciting a flurry of virtuosic leaps and plucked asides. Each whispered harmonic lifts the bird with the silent power of a thermal. But then the prey is spotted, and falls as if pierced by an arrow from its hunter’s very gaze. Agitated pizzicati scamper like the rodent’s ghost into a dense thicket of trees as the hawk raises calls of revelry and tears its meal limb from limb. To my ears, this is one of the most technically demanding pieces on the album, sometimes requiring the cellist to pluck with the left hand while bowing with the right. Wolfgang Fortner’s Zum Spielen für den 70. Geburtstag – Thema und Variationen für Violincello solo is a more somber affair, its flashes of consonance piercing the surrounding dissonant fabric with divine light. The Capriccio by Hans Werner Henze is among the more cryptic pieces. Its complex narrative and subtle details beg repeated listening. This is followed by a string of vignettes. Of these, Henri Dutilleux’s 3 Strophes sur le nom de Sacher and Witold Lutosławski’s Sacher-Variationen are remarkable. Both give us a “conversational” portrait, perhaps reflective of the relationship either composer may have had with the man behind the music, for like a conversation among friends these pieces are fraught with conflict and agreement in equal measure. They are also very “alphabetic” and are perhaps the most committed to the their morphological assignment. Cristóbal Halffter seems to take a similar tack in his Variationen über das Thema eSACHERe, while Conrad Beck and Luciano Berio opt for a more concise approach that favors melodic dissection over prosody. By far the longest piece is Klaus Huber’s Transpositio ad infinitum – Für ein virtuoses Solocello, another compelling delineation of attenuate character and detail. Following this, Heinz Holliger yet again flexes his brilliant compositional muscle with the Chaconne für Violoncello solo. This rather enumerative piece makes apt use of the acoustics of the recording space and exploits the incidental sounds of the strings against the fingerboard as a sort of parallel dialogue. And just when we begin to suspect all possibilities have been exhausted, Pierre Boulez, ever the nonconformist, throws us for a loop with his Messagesquisse for seven cellos, which seems to blend all that came before until smooth.

Even though all of this music inhabits the same landscape, each piece digs up its own relic and turns it into music. The album is passionately performed, and recorded in clear and present sound. It is a unique testament to a unique individual, one that unlocks Sacher in a way those of us who will never know him cannot ever experience otherwise. Essentially, it is the Sacherian equivalent of A Hilliard Songbook, for just as the latter would not exist without the Hilliard Ensemble, so too is this album a timeless memorial to a figure whose absence might have effectively erased an entire generation of masterworks.

<< David Darling: Dark Wood (ECM 1519)
>> Charles Lloyd: The Call (ECM 1522)

Thomas Demenga plays Bach/Carter (ECM New Series 1391)

Thomas Demenga
plays works of J. S. Bach and Elliott Carter

Thomas Demenga cello
Hansheinz Schneeberger violin
Philippe Racine flute
Ernesto Molinari clarinet
Paul Cleemann piano
Gerhard Huber percussion
Jürg Wyttenbach conductor
Recorded October 1988 and April 1989, Zürich
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In this, the first of Thomas Demenga’s Bach cycle for ECM, the ever-adventurous cellist pairs one suite of the Baroque master with the works of a master of a rather different sort: the American composer Elliott Carter.

We begin with Bach’s Suite Nr. 3 in C-Dur für Violoncello solo, BWV 1009, a crowning jewel in solo instrumental literature. The Prelude glows with an improvisatory spirit, which Demenga captures with his usual tasteful flair. The Allemande dances lithely through a hall of contrapuntal bliss, while the Courante skips and slides like an exuberant child without a care in the world, leading us into a lilting Sarabande. The double Bourée is one of the most beloved moments in the Bach suites and blurs here with vivacious speed. The closing Gigue weaves is mercurial song with expert care, leaving us fully prepared for the imminent journey through the world of Carter.

Esprit rude, Esprit doux (1983) for flute and clarinet is a playful romp in distorted fields, where unfinished phrases grow in place of flowers and the wind blows only erratically. Enchanted Preludes (1988) for flute and cello trills and plucks its unsteady way through a wide open sea. Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi (1984) for solo violin, now part of the Four Lauds, is as robust and neoclassical as the music of the Italian composer to whom it is dedicated. But the real treat here is the 1983 Triple Duo, a more formidable and complex work than the rest combined, for combine them it does, and then some. Scored for three duos—comprised of flute/clarinet, piano/percussion, and violin/cello—this piece is classic Carter. Its wily acrobatics twist and twirl with the grace of an intoxicated gymnast. The effect is like the striations of earth visible in an archaeological dig: what appears to be a random zigzag of tones and materials takes on a staggering unity in the larger context of time. One motif is quickly usurped by another, even as a third has already come and gone. This game of hide-and-seek continues for twenty minutes, ending as uncertainly as it began. As with much of Carter’s prolific output, we are left with more questions than answers, yet we never feel cheated, given as we are a veritable stockpile of musical information to sift through to our great delight.

The recording here is meticulous as always. The Bach is awash with warm reverb and sounds spectacular, while the Carter invites the listener with a more pressing immediacy. One can speak the world of Bach, but Carter’s music is surely not to be overlooked. Its fluidity and inextinguishable verve always make for a refreshing experience. Like the most intuitive sketches, it just manages to hold its shape in a jumble of possibilities. Which brings us back to Bach. “What’s the connection?” we might ask. Rather than attempt a feeble answer, I leave you with the words of Heinz Holliger, whose open letter says it far better than I ever could:

Although BA and CA coexist so peacefully beside each other in the alphabet, I am afraid that when the first jagged flashes of flute and clarinet rend the serene C major skies of Bach’s Gigue, your hand will rush to switch off the record player. I hope my plea does not come too late to stop this from happening. It would be such a shame if one fateful turn of the knob were to close off the new and fascinating sound-world just opened to you by those first flashes. Lie back and relax, listen, look, feel and remember the future; try to foresee the past. Let Zeus throw down from the new Olympus those shattering bolts of sound. Let the purifying spiritual storm (not just Esprit rude, Esprit doux) rage around you. You will be richly rewarded.

<< Abercrombie/Johnson/Erskine: s/t (ECM 1390)
>> Keith Jarrett Trio: Changeless (ECM 1392)