Cellist Thomas Demenga continues his Bach project by juxtaposing the Baroque master’s d-minor Suite No. 2 with the work of Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970), one of the most important non-Darmstadters after World War II. As ever, Demenga makes a convincing argument for the pairing (interestingly enough, most of the criticism of Demenga’s project sees the Bach as filler). In this case, Zimmermann is something of an effortless choice, for his fondness of quotation and respect for tradition were at the heart of his artistry. His approach to time in this regard was particularly significant, drawing on intersections of influence through a wide range of trends and idioms.
Thus do we find ourselves in the comforting waters of Bach’s generative whispers from the moment we dive in. For this performance Demenga adopts the approach of a viola da gamba player (to greatest effect in his raspily inflected Courante). This sound draws out the music’s inherent gaseousness, in which one feels something dark and cosmic taking shape. Demenga’s notecraft ensures that every molecule feels connected through a legato of silence. He digs as deep as he can for those distinct Bach lows, plows double stops as if they were fertile fields, and maintains subtle independence of line in the Sarabande. He bows the Menuets as if with shadows, then elicits one of the finer renderings of the Gigue I’ve yet heard, striking a fine balance between jubilation and regret.
The boldness of this architecture may seem an ill fit to Zimmermann’s sonatas, which despite their meticulous scoring also call for an improvisatory approach. This puts the musician in a potentially compromising space, though if anyone is up to the challenge, it’s Demenga. Many of Zimmermann’s works were considered unplayable when first written, the Cello Sonata of 1960 not least of all. Drawing from his usual pool of spatial and temporal concerns, the piece moves beyond the Romantic notion of cello as vox humana and into the realm of speech, action, and embodiment. In his liners, Demenga notes a particularly difficult passage in the first movement, which encompasses three distinct time-layers: “while the upper voice, played on the bridge, produces a continuous ritardando, the middle one is the most striking, because of its very large range and numbers of notes played pizzicato, and then the lowest, played on the nut of the bow, sounds like a scarcely perceptible accelerando.” Despite its brevity, unpacking the finer implications thereof took Demenga weeks to perfect. (ECM Reviews)