In his recitals, Swiss cellist Thomas Demenga frequently contrasts baroque music with 20th century composition, and his acclaimed sequence of recordings for ECM New Series has - for the most part - adhered to this pattern, juxtaposing Bach's cello suites with works from composers including Heinz Holliger, Elliott Carter and Sándor Veress (refer to ECM New Series 1340, 1391 and 1477 respectively). The policy has proven to be enlightening for both the classical audience and followers of contemporary composition. When Demenga plays, correspondences between old and new music become apparent, as does the "modernity" of Bach; in general the cellist could be said to bear out Alban Berg's dictum that one should play classical music as if it were new and new music as if it were classical...
The fourth volume in this series brings together Bernd Alois Zimmermann's solo sonatas for cello, violin and viola with Bach's Suite No. 2 in D Minor. There are some some direct points of contact between these German composers separated by two centuries. As Demenga explains, Zimmermann's Violin Sonata, the first solo work written by the Bliesheim-born composer, is a "12-tone 'Hommage à Bach' - not only because of the B-A-C-H motif that appears transposed in the last movement but more through arpeggios and repeated notes on open strings which, swirled around by multi-voiced figurations, are quite intentionally reminiscent of J.S. Bach's E Major partita." Or, as Zimmermann himself put it in his (posthumously-published) collection of essays, Intervall und Zeit :"The three movements [of the Violin Sonata], Präludium, Rhapsodie and Toccata move from meditative improvisation via a rhapsodic quality to the strict commitment of the Toccata, in which finallyB-A-C-H is quoted in honour of the great master of the six sonatas and suites for unaccompanied violin. "
For Demenga, the "rhapsodic qualities" and the notion of commitment "apply just as well to Bach's cello suite in D Minor, thus linking these two compositions, stylistically so very different (...) The D Minor is the only one of the six cello suites to contain a 'thematic prelude', which is structured more melodiously than all the rest and offers space for a little cadenza at the end of the movement. The character of this whole suite is determined by a kind of melancholy cheerfulness - a mixture of feelings that can be heard to an equal extent in Zimmermann's music, as throughout his life he called himself a 'very Rhenish mixture of monk and Dionysian'".
Bach scholar Peter G. Davis has written that the second cello suite "has more breadth than the first; the key of D Minor almost always evoked a pathetic and noble Innigkeit from Bach. The Prelude, as in the First Suite [recorded by Demenga on ECM New Series 1477] is constructed along the lines of a free fantasia, although the music here is more melodic and reflective. The Allemande is in 4/4 time and continues the note of pathos struck in the Prelude. Another Italian Courante follows, rapid and urgent. The Sarabande is harmonically very rich and full with multiple-stopped chords punctuating the harmonic pattern. The two Menuets are well-contrasted: the first is harmonically thick-textured and in the minor, the second is based primarily on scale passages and playful leaps and is in the tonic major. The concluding Gigue, while retaining its basic swinging triple pulse, is still rather sombre and in keeping with this suite's dark colours."
Dark colours, playful leaps, complex pulses and irregular metres, and a measure of sardonic wit comprise some of the basic ingredients of the music of Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1926 - 1970). The "monkish" side of his character, as writer Marion Rothärmel has noted, found expression in his "extremely compressed pieces for solo instruments, which he described as works of solitude, stillness and pure musical thought stripped of superficiality." Zimmermann's conception of "stillness" differs from a contemporary post Cagean perspective, his "essential" music requiring, still, a great many notes for its expression. The charge of "unplayability" has been levelled at all three of his solo sonatas and they challenge the capabilities of the virtuoso soloists here - Demenga and his frequent associates Thomas Zehetmair and Christoph Schiller.
Zimmermann's music has been reevaluated in recent years and many commentators now concur with Karlheinz Stockhausen's appraisal: "Zimmermann had a much more subtle musical sensibility and consciousness than most composers of his time. He was capable of composing very carefully thought-out melodic lines, and had a very good feeling for when to stop and when to go on, when to pause and when to surprise, and when to compress."
Conductor Michael Gielen has suggested that Zimmermann's compositional system, indeed, the whole of his output, is "a masterly variation of one and the same idea, each piece being like part of a single, giant work. This crystal, his own characteristic mature style, was researched and exploited by him in all directions with infinite care and love."
The unaccompanied Violin Sonata was written in 1951 after Zimmermann had completed his Violin Concerto; it is the first of the composer's solo pieces and an early instance of his (often uneasy) relationship to serialism, in this case the Schönbergian 12-tone technique. In addition to the Bach hommage acknowledged by the composer - a master of the "quote" and the "allusion" - critics have found references to Hindemith, Reger, Paganini. The piece is performed here by Thomas Zehetmair, previously heard on the New Series in recordings from the Lockenhaus Festival, playing Shostakovich's music (see ECM New Series 1304/05 and 1347/48). Relevant non-ECM recordings include interpretations of the Bach solo partitas and sonatas released by Teldec.
Writing of the Viola Sonata, Zimmermann advised that "the term 'sonata' is not to be taken in the sense of the classical sonata form. The work is based on the chorale Gelobet seist du Jesu Christ.. Pachelbel's technique of anticipatory imitation is used here in a transferred form. The individual sections contain not just a a purely musical but a textual interpretation of the chorale, a record of it in meditation." The piece has been cited by Klaus Ebbeke as the most extreme instance of Zimmermann's experiments with serial procedure. It is played here by Christoph Schiller, making his New Series debut. His other recording credits include Koechlin's viola sonata and chamber music by Giacinto Scelsi.
In the CD booklet, Thomas Demenga dwells in some detail on structural details of the Cello Sonata and the problems that the "exchange and interpenetration of many time layers" pose for the interpreter. Its "difficulty" is not to be gainsaid, but as Michael Gielen has noted, in a tribute to Zimmermann, "We know that the so-called unplayable works (since Beethoven) all become playable in the course of time." At which point their technical demands are no longer foregrounded - and so it is here, as the listener dwells instead on the stylistic reach of Zimmermann's music, "a kind of music which incorporated the past extended into the unknown". A method, indeed, which finds its analogy in Thomas Demenga's repertoire.