Violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann and cellist Heinrich Schiff have brought together duets from three disparate periods -- two canons from Bach's Art of the Fugue; duets from the period between the World Wars by Honegger, Martinu, and Ravel; and a piece newly composed for these performers by the German Matthias Pintscher. Zimmermann and Schiff are each virtuosos, and together their musicianship is stunning. Their sensitivity to the music and to each other is most evident in the Bach, where their perfectly coordinated rubato and nuanced attention to shaping the lines make these miniatures into vivid dramas. Who'd have thought that a canon could be so exciting?
Pintscher's Study I for "Treatise on the Veil" was inspired by the paintings of American Cy Twombly, and it exploits the aural possibilities in the imagery of veils. The result is spectral and suggestive, a spare montage of ghostly effects that can only occasionally be recognized as emanating from a violin and cello. It's spookily evocative in its array of unearthly sounds and should be of interest to adventurous ears.
The Honegger sonatine has a higher profile than the Martinu duo, but both are minor works that are merely well made and pleasant, of limited musical interest, and evidence of the skimpiness of repertoire for this combination of instruments. Both have moments of genuine inventiveness, but are spoiled by the triviality of some of the thematic material. Ravel's sonata, from the same period, is another story. The composer considered it a pivotal work and will be a revelation to any listener familiar only with Ravel's works for orchestra. He brings that same fertility of invention to his sonata, as well as an imagination acutely sensitive to the huge timbral variety available to the instruments. The two instruments give him all the resources necessary to create fully convincing, varied, and satisfying soundworlds in each movement. The piece is a dazzling demonstration of the expressive possibilities of the duet in the hands of a genius. ECM's sound has all the intimacy and clarity one could hope for in performances of this repertoire.