Thomas Demenga plays Bach/Holliger (ECM New Series 1340)

Thomas Demenga
plays works of J. S. Bach and Heinz Holliger

Thomas Demenga cello
Heinz Holliger oboe
Catrin Demenga violin
Recorded September 1986, Kirche Blumenstein, Switzerland
Engineer: Jakob Stämpfli
Produced by Manfred Eicher

With this disc Swiss cellist Thomas Demenga inaugurated a five-album series, each of which pairs a different Bach cello suite (the last contains two) with more contemporary material. While one might easily see the Bach as “filler” in an otherwise intriguing series of modern selections (or vice versa), there is something refreshing about Thomas Demenga’s project that pushes it far beyond the realm of gimmickry.

First is a tripartite selection of works by the inimitable Heinz Holliger, who along with the likes of Kaija Saariaho is, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, one of the more important composers of our time. From its opening bars the Duo für Violine und Violoncello exhibits Thomas and sister Catrin Demenga’s superb dexterity and dynamic control. The music jump-starts immediately with a forceful pizzicato from the cello as the violin swells from silence like an automaton whose siren is slow and sure. After this intro the duo begins a subtle interplay of trembling leaps, foreshadowing the timid Trema soon to come. The regularity of the opening is buried here, the execution more melodic. The instruments remain relatively stationary, looking up through a canopy of notes at a vast sky. But then the violin circles above, the cello arising with it before both descend into silence, at which point they are resuscitated by the same linear melody in slightly different scales, like a transparency bumped ever so slightly out of alignment. This process is quiet at first, but suddenly accelerates, as if drawn to an invisible source of inspiration. The journey grows ever higher before reaching its plateau: an aerie of vultures whose scavenged collection lies heaped on the forest floor. The piece ends with a brief series of false starts, ending on the third escape.

Studie über Mehrklänge für Oboe solo is a classic for the instrument, and one of those rare pieces that is firmly rooted in the conceptual yet which is also “musical” and a joy to listen to (I have seen apparently conservative audiences mesmerized by its effects). The piece requires of the oboist—in this case Holliger himself—to engage not only in circular breathing almost throughout, but also to overblow the instrument, creating an array of multiphonics, which Holliger shapes into a highly compositional palette. The highlight comes with Holliger’s fluttering technique toward the end and the series of weaving tonal lines that follow, gathering speed as they are jostled from one side to the other in a wilting exploration of the woodwind’s demise. The piece fades in a single high tone, briefly exposing its constituent harmonics.

Trema für Violoncello solo is, as its title implies, a traumatic piece. Demenga handles it studiously, bringing an intensity to the playing that seems to grow from the notes themselves. The piece shivers, running even as it stumbles, hoping and waiting for that moment when all else has expired, leaving the moonlit night to carry its secrets into the dawn, when nothing but art is alive. Demenga has managed to pull off an extraordinary feat here, implying through sound and technique the entire narrative of which the music is composed. There is nothing wasted in Trema, as every note seems to connect to the last and to the one forthcoming, collapsing as a figure who can no longer face the world.

After such a draining piece we arrive at Bach’s Suite No. 4 in Es-Dur für Violoncello, and hear its counterpoint as if for the first time. Regardless of one’s familiarity with the suites, in the context of such pairings they take on a host of new colors. Demenga plays competently and without flourish, interested only in drawing out the music’s inner darkness. His playing of the Sarabande is particularly beautiful and speaks of a musician not lost, but found therein.

Of course, it is only when human involvement and intervention brings such music to our ears that we feel inclined to see it as a part of us. The trajectory of performance is determined by many choices on the part of composers, musicians, and listeners. Nothing is achievable for the solo artist without some awareness of these gaps. What distinguishes performers are the ways in which they seek to fill them. Thus, with every nuance, Demenga gives a great gift not only to us but to the composers, whose work multiplies with every listening experience.

The recording is top-notch overall, but particularly crystal clear in the Bach. We hear every finger tap and sympathetic effect, every rustle of movement that goes into its steady sound. This is a New Series classic in my book and a prime example of ECM’s often bold programming choices.

<< Edward Vesala: Lumi (ECM 1339)
>> Thomas Tallis: The Lamentations Of Jeremiah (ECM 1341 NS)

Arvo Pärt: Arbos (ECM New Series 1325)

Arvo Pärt

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Christopher Bowers-Broadbent organ
Gidon Kremer violin
Vladimir Mendelssohn viola
Thomas Demenga cello
Brass Ensemble Staatsorchester Stuttgart
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Arbos, An den Wassern zu Babel, Pari Intervallo, De Profundis, and Summa recorded March/August 1986, Karlshöhe, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland (Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg)
Stabat MaterEs sang vor langen Jahren recorded January 1987 at St. John’s Church, London
Engineers: Peter Laenger and Andreas Neubronner (Südwest Tonstudio, Stuttgart)
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The music of Arvo Pärt, says Wilfred Mellers in his liner notes, is “concerned with the numinous”; as direct a statement as one can make about the sounds contained in this relatively neglected disc, overshadowed as it often is by the popularity of Te Deum and Tabula Rasa. For those new to Pärt, the wide selection represented in Arbos makes a solid primer. From the succinct to the majestic, the listener is treated to a carefully programmed process of transformation, culminating in one of the great masterpieces of modern choral literature.

The journey begins with the title piece, a terse blast of energy scored for brass and percussion. While cacophonous and chromatic, it is also perpetual and dark, providing the core for the “Dies irae” of Pärt’s later Miserere. On its own, it swirls into a self-sustaining galaxy that becomes more ordered with distance.

An den Wassern zu Babel saßen wir und weinten renders the well-known “By the rivers of Babylon” passage from Psalm 137 in a series of lilting triads, alternating between men’s and women’s voices. Here and elsewhere throughout the album one encounters the essence of the composer’s “tintinnabuli” style. Sustained tones from organ thread a line of subdued vocal beads, reaching ever higher, only to fall like kites whose strings are cut.

Pari Intervallo provides respite from denser surroundings. Comprised of gravid lead tones resting on a blanket of softer commentary, it is a funereal postlude, waiting and watching as the end draws near, promising not cessation but new life in its reverberant heart. It is a sublime meditation on the meaning of divinity and the divinity of meaning, a soul left unscripted by the wayside, where it can be captured neither on paper nor in sound. And yet, here we find an attempt to sketch its contours against our better judgment, against our feelings of inadequacy, against our assumptions of complexity in all things spiritual. In this piece we find the fibers that bound the garments of Christ on the cross, the creaking of knees of those who knelt at his feet. Pari Intervallo shimmers like heat distortion, moving with the force of a slow tide before receding into a still sea.

This is followed by Pärt’s stunning De Profundis, which also makes an appearance in the Miserere, if augmented by a broader choral palette. Different also here is the recording, which is less spacious (the bass drum, for one, is far more present). The voices are allowed to luxuriate in their own fallibility, in that beauty of impermanence that makes them human. In exposing its fragility so readily, the music becomes resilient. An organ provides the waters upon which this vessel of music floats, while a gong adds a dual note of ceremony. Whereas this piece brings us to the end in Miserere, as a standalone composition it seems to suggest a beginning.

Es sang vor langen Jahren sets a German poem (text and translation available here) by Clemens Brentano (1778-1842) for alto, violin, and viola. Alto Susan Bickley weaves a delicate song in this bare setting. Her tone is rich, as if residing somewhere in the back of her throat, heard before it is seen. The strings are like a lectern upon which the poetry rests, its pages bronzed with age.

Next is Summa in its original choral version. It is the quintessential Pärt composition: balanced, lush with triadic splendor, and concise. Along with Fratres in its many guises, Summa is a red thread in Pärt’s oeuvre and shines in this heartfelt performance.

This is followed by a curious reprise of Arbos that may divide listeners. Either way, it startles us from our reverie before pushing us into another.

At last we come to the highlight of an already fine disc: the 1985 Stabat Mater for 3 voices and string trio. The downward movement of its opening strings presents us with a unique metaphorical inversion. Where many a Stabat Mater works toward transcendence in its mourning, here we are brought from Heaven to Earth, even as we know that we must look from the latter to the former. The voices are the Trinity in a single open Ah, as if to spin their grief beyond the confines of language. Only then, after a brief comment from strings, does the text reveal itself. David James is the standout performer here, leading the way to a more rhythmic passage, echoed sul ponticello. Soprano Lynne Dawson enters like light through a window, bringing a maternal edge as she joins with James in duet, dotting the frosted glass of eternity with her warm fingertips. From Mount Zion they overlook the valleys—as green as they are brown—until everything that we have known is washed away in sound.

On the whole, Arbos goes down like a potion brewed in a vast melodic crucible. This is music that revels in its own exiguousness, for it is within those empty spaces that the greatest discoveries await us.

<< Jan Garbarek: All Those Born With Wings (ECM 1324)
>> Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy: Avant Pop (ECM 1326)

Thomas Demenga/Heinz Reber: Cellorganics (ECM New Series 1196)

ECM 1196 LP


Thomas Demenga cello
Heinz Reber pipe organ
Recorded October 1980 at Pauluskirche Bern, Switzerland
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Cellorganics is exemplary of what I see to be ECM’s primary aesthetic: the dialectic possibilities of seemingly disparate instrumental voices, cultures, and sociopolitical contexts. The pairing of cello with organ is but a step away from the former’s canonic place beside the piano. And yet this juxtaposition opens us to entirely new areas of sonic creation, dramatically enhanced by the lofty recording space.

The album arises as if from slumber with the lone cello, whereupon it is gently accosted by the organ. Thus begins a delicate conversation that before long erupts into a frenzied catharsis. At this point Reber repositions himself, providing a dense and layered backdrop for Demenga’s no less contemplative phrasing. This stichomythic structure continues, interspersed with stunning moments of confluence—occasionally dipping into reverberant depths of scraping and sustained chords—before the cello works through its own degradation into a sort of intertextual improvisation.

The album’s center finds the two musicians in an exuberant melancholy; one suffused with both rhythmic buoyancy and introspective caution. The organ’s pointillism becomes a comforting counterpoint to the cello’s harmonic glissandi, giving way to an expansive exposition and coda.

Ultimately, this album is about power relationships and their reconfigurations. The organ’s long-held position as a vessel for moral weight, as imposing as it is transcendent, is challenged here in its pairing with a “lowly” string. This is not a cello that yearns to be heard, but one that sings out of its own self-sufficiency. The pizzicato passages that open the final chapter in this narrative are like footsteps, neither approaching nor receding, dancing in place to the tune of their own inner voices. The organ, too, becomes a living organism, literally breathing life through a forest of esophagi.

This recording invites us not only to listen, but also to speak.

<< Shankar: Who’s To Know (ECM 1195)
>> Meredith Monk: Dolmen Music (ECM 1197 NS)