Recorded August 2004 at Clara-Wieck-Auditorium,
Sandhausen bei Heidelberg.
Swiss cellist Thomas Demenga here comes up with an unusual angle on the contemporary attempt to make the instrumental a personal statement rather than a mere demonstration of mastery: he plays a program of encores. Of course, many famed instrumental performers have released albums of encores, but there's never been one like this before. Demenga explores the concept of the encore itself, positing it as the only segment of the traditional recital in which the performer could display his or her own personality - in the words of the rather verbose notes of Anselm Cybinski, could "display the wandering minstrel who slumbers unacknowledged even in the most cerebral of musical exegetes." Thus Demenga offers examples of various types of encores. There is the virtuoso exotic encore, often coming from a composer's own ethnic tradition; these are represented here by the title work by Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsintsadze and by the Danse du diable vert of Gaspar Cassado. There is the Romantic encore with a beautiful tune, exemplified here by works of Chopin and Faure. There are intellectual works (Webern, late Liszt), and Bach chorales, presented here in delightful arrangements with accordion by Demenga himself. And there are pieces composed by the player - which, as Demenga points out, fell out of favor as modernism tightened its icy grip on music. Demenga's own works are great crowd-pleasers. Start your sampling with his New York Honk, the last work on the program: the cello plays an energetic figure that seems to be interrupted by city traffic noises.
Having sorted out all these strands, Demenga weaves them together once again in a program that makes sense harmonically and in terms of timing - he even varies the lengths of the pauses between tracks as he manipulates its ebb and flow. What is intended, again in Cybinski's words, is "a 'composed' continuum in which seemingly heterogeneous items coalesce, almost nonchalantly exploding ancient misgivings against suites of miniatures." The music reminds you that it's fun when it seems to be getting too serious, and it tells you to think about it when it starts to seem lightweight. It all adds up to a virtuoso performance in the best sense of the word - in the mind as well as the fingers - and one that would surely attract audiences if offered in tour in support of the recording.
All Music Guide
A journey through time, space, and states of mind - from Bach via Webern to two works from his own pen, from Georgia via Vienna to New York, and from Gaspar Cassado's Danse du diable vert to Franz Liszt's La lugubre gondola. With Chonguri, the Swiss cellist Thomas Demenga has fulfilled a long-cherished dream and presented an unconventional program of encores, creating an exciting arc of tension in which ethnic, nostalgic, and abstract inflections surprisingly blend and interact.
In 2002 ECM issued the last installment in Demenga's highly-touted Bach cycle, in which each of the six cello suites was juxtaposed with a piece of chamber music by a contemporary composer such as Holliger, Carter, Veress, or Bernd Alois Zimmermann. This new anthology of short pieces is a similar attempt to find illuminating combinations and surprising cross-effects. As he points out in his liner notes for the new album, his special concern is the "No-Man's land of the eras" and the "interstices" in the composer's handwriting. Precisely timed pauses between the tracks, along with carefully wrought harmonic transitions that maintain the tonic or migrate to related keys, transport the listener into a world transcending the bounds of the pieces themselves.
Surely even more unusual in this respect than Anton Webern's atonal Drei kurze Stucke, which form the exact midpoint of the program, are the four chorale settings from Bach's Orgelbuchlein and Schubler Chorales, which Demenga himself has judiciously arranged for cello and accordion. As their titles suggest, all of them tie in with the album's overriding leitmotif: farewell and death, world-weariness and the hope of redemption. The sound of Teodoro Anzellotti's accordion kindles memories of the organ while covering the music with a nostalgic patina.
Despite Demenga's concern for an overriding theme, Chonguri is also a collection of his personal favorites. Among these are his own two compositions as well as three pieces by Faure and two Chopin nocturnes. The Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsintsadze (1925-1992), on the other hand, is a new discovery for Demenga. Tsintsadze began his career in the 1940s as a cellist in the State String Quartet and advanced to become one of his country's leading twentieth-century composers. His catalogue of compositions includes two operas, five symphonies, twelve string quartets, and much else besides. Hardly any of his music is known in the West. The short piece for unaccompanied cello that has lent its title to our album imitates the sound of Georgia's traditional long-necked lute with its chordal pizzicatos.
Thomas Demenga was born in Berne in 1954 and studied with Antonio Janigro, Leonard Rose, and Mstislav Rostropovich. He also received formative stimuli in chamber music from Claus Adam, Felix Galimir, and Robert Mann at New York's Juilliard School. He has been a professor at Basle Musikhochschule since 1980 and the artistic director of the "Young Artists in Concert" Festival in Davos since 2000. Demenga performs regularly as a soloist and chamber musician in the major festivals and concert halls of the world. He maintains an avid interest in contemporary music and has presented a great many world premieres. His own compositions are also increasingly drawing attention: the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne has commissioned a work from him for two cellos and orchestra, to be premiered in the fall of 2007. He has been recording for ECM since the 1980s, this new album being his ninth release on the Munich label. Demenga plays an instrument built by the brothers Antonio and Girolamo Amati in 1595.
Born in Innsbruck in 1963, the pianist and composer Thomas Larcher is considered one of the most versatile performers of our time and a keen connoisseur of both the solo and chamber music repertoires. From 2001 to 2004 he headed a piano class at Basle Musikhochschule. He has presented a program of piano pieces by Schubert and Schoenberg on ECM New Series and rubbed shoulders with artists of the stature of Michelle Makarski, Thomas Zehetmair, and Heinz Holliger. For years he has been one of Thomas Demenga's most stalwart musical companions. The two musicians made a joint appearance at ECM in a double album of works by Bach, Hosokawa, and Yun. Larcher's recording debut as a composer, entitled Naunz, brought the two men into contact with the violinist Erich Hobarth. In autumn 2006 ECM will issue a CD with further examples of Larcher's chamber music, again featuring Demenga, but this time including such musicians as Christoph Poppen and the Rosamunde Quartet.
Born in Apulia, Teodoro Anzellotti is a leading innovator in accordion technique who has decisively influenced the contemporary repertoire for his instrument. Working in close cooperation with composers, he has premiered more than three hundred new works to date. He has taught at Berne's Hochschule der Kunste since 1987 and at the Freiburg Musikhochschule since 2002. His previous recordings for ECM include appearances on Heinz Holliger's Beiseit / Alb-Chehr and the final installment of Thomas Demenga's Bach cycle.
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Moments musicaux: Of Little Excitations and Last Things
When the performer's work is done - when the canonical masterpieces are thoroughly explicated, the judiciously chosen tokens of individuality firmly in place and the reviewers' verdicts determined -, then, at the end of the recital, the soloist reveals his secret self. A string of encores opens a little door into the musical purlieus of the pleasure principle. Freed from the stern need for self-control, the artist is allowed, for a few precious minutes, to display the wandering minstrel who slumbers unacknowledged even in the most cerebral of musical exegetes. Whether he turns to an ostentatiously plain transcription of a Wagner aria (as was Pablo Casals's wont) or his own version of Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (a la Heifetz) or plays a Bach sarabande, the choice betrays his personal disposition and cultural background in equal measure. Encores are the musician's litmus test, telling us as much about him as his tone, tempo and phrasing. It was the deftness in combining pyrotechnic feats of technique with moments of sublime poetry - not to mention his almost palpable delight at the keyboard - that made Vladimir Horowitz the quintessential master of the encore. Horowitz was also one of the few virtuosos of the waning twentieth century who composed or arranged their own encore pieces. Fritz Kreisler's wily yarn of unearthing a precious miscellany of baroque manuscripts in an old monastery - a tale circulated shortly after the fin de siecle -marked something akin to a shift of paradigms: he believed that his own pieces with their stylistic imitations would not be taken seriously in the Age of Modernism. The division of labour between composer and performer seemed an irrevocable fait accompli.
In this sense, Thomas Demenga belongs to an increasingly rare species of instrumentalist. His illuminating juxtapositions of Bach's solo suites with chamber music by such contemporary figures as Elliott Carter, Bernd Alois Zimmermann and Heinz Hol-liger have earned him international recognition as a fearless and undaunted explorer of the repertoire. Yet two of the seventeen short pieces on our program are of his own devising, and he arranged four of the others for his instrument. New York Honk is one of Demenga's earliest compositional essays altogether. To this day he has never had a composition lesson, yet for years has regularly received commissions to write largish works. While studying at Juilliard in New York, the young cellist tried his hand at turning out a short piece of music. He ground to a halt after the first few bars, but found an onomatopoeic escape hatch in his impressions of Manhattan's traffic snarls. The result was a whimsical trifle (with sidelong glances at Gershwin's American in Paris) which he has never stopped favouring as an encore number.
Eine kleine Erregung ('A little excitation'), in contrast, owes its existence to a suggestion from Heinz Holliger, who asked Demenga and several other fellow-musicians to write short pieces for violin and piano to be played at an introductory event preceding a Basle performance of Alban Berg's Violin Concerto. Each piece was meant to have a clear bearing on Berg's opus ultimum. Demenga took a liking to the idea, and since he wanted to play the piece himself he ultimately wound up writing it for his own instrument. It opens with the initial bars of Berg's concerto virtually flaunted against buzzing sounds of the plucked piano strings. Even the celebrated twelve-note row is clearly recognisable, soaring forth in a scurrying spiccato. This is followed by an improvisatory section in free rubato - 'little excitations', playfully tweaking Berg's solemn demeanour into a smile. Yet it is Bach's chorale Es ist genug, from the second movement of Berg's instrumental requiem (composed, as is well known, to commemorate the death of the young Manon Gropius), that ties in with Demenga's concept for our album. Where great musicians ordinarily cobble together almost random hodgepodges of maudlin sentiments and instrumental extravaganzas, Demenga's thoughts turn on farewell and death, contrition and redemption. The longest piece on this musical journey through the world's regions, ages and emotions is Franz Liszt's late La lugubre gondola, a gloomy seven-minute elegy skirting the outer limits of tonality. Here we hear it in its original version for violin or cello and piano. The former bon vivant, now downcast and glum, composed this piece in the winter of 1882-3 while staying in Wagner's Palazzo Vendramin in Venice. A few months later the Master of Bayreuth passed away. Liszt later returned to the theme of La lugubre gondola, to significant effect, in his piano piece At the Grave of Richard Wagner.
Perhaps more revealing than the encores that celebrated virtuosos select spontaneously on the evening of the recital are those congeries of inserts that have become de rigueur since the advent of the long-playing record. These pieces invariably present a slice of the pianist's autobiography, a sort of photo album in notes. In such garlands of encores the cello - that strangely androgynous instrument with its female shape and its sonorous male voice (its gender is feminine in the Slavic languages, masculine in French, and neuter in English and German) - is frequently confined to the elegiac and contemplative strains of Romanticism. It may sing, wax ecstatic, even lament. The perilous tightrope acts and feats of virtuosic derring-do that prevail among violinists and pianists are usually secondary in importance. Nor are they particularly numerous: for a long time they were thought to be beyond the cello's capabilities. As Napoleon allegedly exclaimed in amazement to the brilliant technician Jean-Pierre Du-port, 'You have made an ox sound like a nightingale.' Yet Demen-ga has dramaturgical reasons for avoiding displays of technical wizardry in his nearly hour-long program of short pieces. Granted, the unaccompanied Chonguri, by the Georgian cellist and composer Sulkhan Tsintsadze (1925-1992), imitates the sound of Georgia's like-named long-necked lute with its chordal pizzi-catos, making it a typical instance of a genre piece with an exotic tinge. Another item of pure virtuosic panache is Danse du diable vert by the Catalonian composer Gaspar Cassado. Yet this diabolical dance is likewise related to the theme of 'Heaven and Hell' that lends a Janus-faced quality to our unusual encore collection.
No Le Cygne, no Vocalise, no Song without Words is to be found in Demenga's selection. Only the two Chopin nocturnes and the three Faure pieces, including the indestructible but thematicaliy related Apres un reve, represent the species of tastefully arranged salon piece with license to noble displays of heightened emotion. A surprising counterpoint to that are the four chorale settings by Johann Sebastian Bach: BWV 614, 617 and 639 from the Orgel-buchlein, and BWV 648 from the Schubler Chorales. Demenga has arranged them all for cello and accordion without seriously altering the original texture, allowing the accordion, with its organ-like sound, to stand in lieu of a modern grand piano. At the same time, this former favourite of buskers and sea shanties shifts the chorales from the realm of the sacred into the world of nostalgically embroidered memory.
Demenga elevates our listening to the status of an almost somnambulistic flow. In the middle of the program, without knowing exactly how, we find ourselves among Anton Webern's atonal Three Little Pieces (1914), only to float two minutes later into the late-romantic Two Pieces that the fifteen-year-old Webern wrote in 1899-the earliest works he ever completed. A moment later we are back to Bach. Yet we hardly sense a jolt, thanks not only to the finely balanced pauses between the tracks, but especially to the judicious harmonic elisions. The first six numbers, before Webern's op.11, hover relatively close to A major, whereas the second of his early pieces ends in F major. The Bach chorale that follows is in F minor, Faure's Apres un reve in the dominant C minor, after which the Chopin nocturne enters in the parallel key of E-flat major. The result is a 'composed' continuum in which seemingly heterogeneous items coalesce, almost nonchalantly exploding ancient misgivings against suites of miniatures. Basically, after all, all such suites are subject to the accusation of being medleys. Adorno's stern objections - that they help to 'fetishise' superficial frissons or even accelerate a 'regression in our aural faculties' - can be safely left by the wayside: simple listening experience informs us that nothing cloys more quickly than an accumulation of tuneful or seductive 'highlights'. Several years ago Wolfgang Rihm, in an essay that took both its title and its subject from Adorno's radio lecture Schone Stellen ('Beautiful Passages'), drew attention to the basically ephemeral nature of 'magical moments' in music: 'Their place is in their passing. But what is it that passes? Usually a moment capable of lending both expression and shape (if only fleetingly) to our wish that it should tarry.' It is not the finished and completed work of art, Rihm maintains, that gives us true happiness, but 'transitions, interims, hesitations'. Thomas Demenga prefers to speak of the space between the lines. And indeed, that is where we discover the loveliest passages on our program. When we dip our treacherous strip of litmus paper into these spaces, we can watch with amazement as it turns more and more colourful - as colourful as only things on earth can be. Heaven can wait...
- Anselm Cybinski (translation: J. Bradford Robinson)
There are people who never, or only rarely, read between the lines. And there are those who only, or almost always, do.
It would be interesting to find out whether people who never, or only rarely, read between the lines know that they are sending out messages nonetheless - the ones that crystallise between the lines - and have to expect their unconsciously composed messages to be received by others. These messages, of whose existence the author is entirely unaware, are highly interesting!
The case is similar for the Zwischenraume, the speaking silences, on this CD, for which I have developed an enormous nostalgia. Nostalgia? Yes - because these interstices offer me a brief moment of insight into the No Man's Land of the eras, or perhaps more precisely, into the interstices connecting the various musical eras. The shorter the time, the more intense my experience.
How I would love to know what Bach would feel if he heard a cello and accordion arrangement of one of the chorales from his Orgelbuchlein linked up with the last pizzicato of a Georgian chonguri! This linkage creates the magic moment I love so much -it is very brief but incredibly thrilling and intense. What happens inside us when the solemn prayer 'Herr Gott, nun schleuss den Himmel auf is answered by the onslaught of Cassado's green devil?
As a point of interest, the chonguri, which is imitated by the cello in Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsintsadze's piece, is a lute-like instrument used in Georgian folk music. The 'New York Honk', on the other hand, was my own attempt, as a student at the Juil Hard School of Music, to compose an amusing little encore. Battling against inexperience and lapses in concentration, disturbed yet inspired by the Manhattan street noise, I came up with the result recorded here.
-Thomas Demenga (translation: Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart)