Demenga cello ECM17823

Déjà Review: this review was first published in January 2003 and the recording is still available.

Thomas Demenga (cello)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Suite No 5 in C minor, BWV 1011
Suite No 6 in D major, BWV 1012
Isang Yun (1917-1995)
Gasa (1963)
Espace 1 (1992)
Images (1968)
Toshio Hosokawa (b. 1955)
In der Tiefe der Zeit (1994/6)
Duo (1998)
Winter Bird (1978)
Teodoro Anzellotti (accordion), Asako Urushihara (violin), Hansheinz Schneeberger (violin), Thomas Larcher (piano), Aurèle Nicolet (flute), Heinz Holliger (oboe)
rec. 1985-2000, Kirche Blumenstein, Germany; Radio DRS Zürich, Switzerland
ECM 1782/3 (461862-2) [2 CDs: 142]

Demenga’s recordings of Bach’s suites for solo cello were launched as far back as 1986. From the start, he included works by contemporary composers (Zimmermann, Carter, Veress, Holliger). This double CD set is the last instalment in this thought-provoking series. It is likely to fascinate as well as irritate depending on the listener’s likes and dislikes. Like it or not, the contemporary pieces featured here would have been unthinkable without Bach’s innovative thinking and writing as displayed in his Cello Suites. The present recordings of Bach’s suites are confronted with works by two Eastern composers who were admirers of Bach’s music as well as clear products of their respective cultures (though they were trained in Europe). The Korean-born Isang Yun and the Japanese-born Toshio Hosokawa, a pupil of Yun, try to find a meeting point between Western and Eastern musical traditions while as far as possible preserving their cultural roots.

Though his early mature works inevitably bore the imprint of the musical avant-garde of the 1960s, Yun soon found his own way of blending Western and Eastern influences into a highly personal whole. This balance characterises most of his later output culminating in five substantial symphonies, a number of concertos, operas and a large number of chamber works including several string quartets and two clarinet quintets. Gasa of 1963 is the earliest work here in which Yun’s quest for a personal musical thinking is still under weigh. There is still much in this piece that reflects Yun’s formal concerns and preoccupations with some aspects of the then prevailing Serialism though he never adopted it unreservedly, as well as with some Eastern playing techniques. This is particularly evident in the violin part. Gasa is a virtuoso work of considerable technical difficulty, though never gratuitously so.

By comparison, Images (flute, oboe, violin and cello) is almost impressionistic and definitely achieves the kind of synthesis that Yun was aiming at. As such, it might be one of his first mature works and an important milestone in Yun’s musical progress. As in Gasa, the music alternates energetic, rhythmically alert episodes and peaceful, meditative moments, a “continuous repetition of Yin-Yang principles”, to quote the composer’s own words. (It seems that the present recording has been available on a Japanese CD before [CAMERATA 32CM-108], though the information concerning that recording mentions DRS Basel rather than DRS Zürich as mentioned here.]

The much later Espace 1 for cello and piano is a prime example of the composer’s hard-won tone of voice. This beautiful piece is also quite accessible and could well earn Yun many new admirers. It unfolds in continuous alternations and relaxations before reaching a moving coda of great beauty.

Hosokawa is represented by works situated at both ends of his composing career. Winter Bird of 1978 is one of the few early works he still acknowledges. This is a free fantasy for solo violin still rather redolent of the prevailing Western avant-garde, though it already displays some beautiful lyrical moments.

In der Tiefe der Zeit (“In the Depth of Time”) is a substantial study in sound written for the rather unusual combination of cello and accordion. The accordion functions as a Western equivalent of the sho (Japanese mouth-organ). It is sparingly but tellingly used; and its pedal notes, constantly varied dynamically, provide for a firm ground supporting the cello’s flights of fancy. These excursions reach some intense climaxes in the course of the piece. It is a long and difficult work and the cello part is fiendishly demanding. The music communicates by the sheer force of its inventiveness and its subtle poetic feel.

The recent Duo for violin and cello is another example of Hosokawa’s approach to music and, paradoxically, to silence which he views as important and meaningful as the sounds themselves. Silence plays a leading part in this piece which is much more violent in mood than In der Tiefe der Zeit. The composer sometimes enlarges his expressive palette by using some spectral techniques, but this is always discreetly done and is always in the service of expressive ends.

In short, a typical ECM production (and a quite generous one): thought-provoking, often fascinating and quite rewarding in its own peculiar way. Masterly playing of Demenga and his colleagues caught in superb recordings. No easy stuff, though, but well worth the effort.

Hubert Culot

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