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Thomas Demenga: violoncello

Swiss cellist Thomas Demenga returns to Bach’s Suiten für Violoncello, masterpieces of music. “To me, Bach is the greatest musical genius who has ever lived,” says Demenga. “His music is pure, sublime… It possesses something divine and each musician has a lifetime in which to discover new ways of interpreting it.”

The present recording, made at the Hans Huber Saal in Basel, is Demenga’s second reckoning with the cello suites on ECM. He previously recorded them between 1986 and 2002, juxtaposing them with contemporary composition (by Elliott Carter, Heinz Holliger, Sandor Veress, B.A. Zimmermann, Toshio Hosokawa and Isang Yun) in a series of albums which count as milestones in the early history of the New Series. (Elliott Carter wrote that he had “never heard the Bach C Major suite played so understandingly and so convincingly.”) 

With Bach, the committed interpreter must always approach the music’s challenges anew:
“I think I’m speaking for most musicians when I say, that especially with such monumental works as the Bach Suites, there is always a desire to do better, to do justice to the content of the music: to present the preludes ever more simply and clearly, and to make the dances more dancelike and more graceful. The eternal search…”

Many years of playing and studying every aspect of the pieces, from source manuscripts to different tempos, embellishments, fingerings and bowings, have brought Demenga to the heart of the music – which Bach himself described as the only goal. The quality of tone production is crucial of course and, for Demenga, this is also a tactile issue: “To interpret Bach’s works as truthfully as possible,” he feels, “it is essential to play with gut strings and a baroque bow. The cello does not have to be rebuilt in the baroque manner – a modern instrument is able to capture the sound just as well. Playing on bare gut strings, however, goes a step further. The tone quality of a baroque string has something ‘wooden’ and archaic: even the bowing of open strings presents a whole new sound world. I always get the feeling that Bach is gazing over my shoulder with his kind, yet strict expression.”

Simultaneously with the 2-CD set of the Suiten für Violoncello, ECM is issuing a vinyl album – Préludes & Sarabandes – with selected movements from the suites. 


Thomas Demenga was born in 1954 in Berne, Switzerland, and studied with Walter Grimmer, Antonio Janigro, Leonard Rose and Mstislav Rostropovich, among others. Important chamber music influences were Claus Adam, Felix Galimir and Robert Mann at the Juilliard School in New York.

He has performed at important festivals and musical centres around the globe and shared the stage with fellow musicians such as Heinz Holliger, Gidon Kremer, Thomas Larcher, Paul Meyer, Aurèle Nicolet, Hansheinz Schneeberger, Thomas Zehetmair and Tabea Zimmermann. As a soloist he has collaborated with, among others, the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester, Berner Symphonie Orchester, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Camerata Bern, Junge Deutsche Philharmonie, Kammerorchester Basel, L’Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne, L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Nieuw Ensemble Amsterdam, ORF-Symphonieorchester Wien, Sinfonieorchester Basel, Sinfonietta Basel, Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, Westdeutsches Rundfunk Symphonie-Orchester, and Zürcher Kammerorchester.

Much of Thomas Demenga’s work addresses different historical eras and styles of interpretation and composition. His individual voice as a composer and interpreter of 20th and 21st century works (among them important prèmieres) gives a new and complementary dimension to both the historical performance practice of baroque music and his interpretations of the classical and romantic repertoire. In 1991 he was the first Swiss composer to be awarded first prize for his composition Solo per due by the congress of the Tribune Internationale des Compositeurs.

From 2000 Demenga was composer-in-residence at the Davos Festival, «Young Artists in Concert», and subsequently appointed artistic director of the festival, a position he gave up in 2006 to commit himself fully to performing and composing again.

Thomas Demenga’s work has been documented on twenty ECM New Series recordings to date. In addition to his albums of Bach and contemporary composition, he can be heard together with brother Patrick Demenga on Lux aeterna (playing music of Alexander Knaifel, Jean Barrière, Roland Moser and Barry Guy, as well as Thomas Demenga’s own music) and on 12 Hommages à Paul Sacher (with music of Conrad Beck, Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Benjamin Britten, Henri Dutilleux, Wolfgang Fortner, Alberto Ginastera, Cristóbel Halfter, Heinz Holliger, Klaus Huber and Witold Lutoslwaski). His album Chonguri with Thomas Larcher and Teodoro Anzellotti, includes his own music alongside compositions of Bach, Chopin, Webern, Liszt, Milhaud, Fauré and more. Cellorganics features Demenga as improviser in duets with Heinz Reber. He also appears on Reber’s Mnaomai, mnomai, on Heinz Holliger’s Lauds and Lamentations: Music of Elliott Carter and Isang Yun, Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Canto di speranza, Thomas Larcher’s Ixxu and Naunz, Giya Kancheli’s Diplipito, and Arvo Pärt’s Arbos and Musica Selecta. In the Edition Lockenhaus series Demenga can be heard playing Shostakovich with Gidon Kremer.

CD booklet includes liner notes by Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich and Thomas Demenga

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