Christoph Berg and Henning Schmiedt: Bei

Every improvised recording raises ‘Freedom vs. Determinism' issues that have long been debated in philosophical circles. While on the one hand the musician involved might profess an unqualified belief in the freedom the particular playing situation affords, the musical choices made by that same individual can't help but be influenced by the already formed sensibility and level of technical proficiency brought to the session. When violinist Christoph Berg and pianist Henning Schmiedt meet, for example, the training each brings to their improvisations already fixes to some degree the moves that'll be made; further to that, each participant will bring expectations to the meeting based on familiarity with his partner's style of playing.

Put in simplest terms, neither Berg nor Schmiedt came to their collaboration expecting the other to play bebop or rockabilly; instead, before a note was played, each naturally anticipated the other would adopt a refined, classically oriented style and conduct himself in accordance with that expectation. None of which invalidates in any way what the two produced; it's merely an attempt to set the record straight, as it were, and clarify the degree to which Bei should be regarded as free improvisation in the purest sense.

Schmiedt's background includes stints with jazz-oriented ensembles in the mid-‘80s and a subsequent shift in focus to chamber classical and world music; prior to Bei, the German pianist released five solo albums on flau. For his part, Berg has established himself with a number of highly regarded solo and collaborative collections of acoustic chamber music and issues material under the Field Rotation alias.

Certainly there is much pleasure to be derived from these duets. Schmiedt plays with an elegance and lightness of touch that makes him an ideal partner to Berg. Complementing the pianist, the violinist brings a sweetness of tone to his performances that makes them all the more endearing. Without compromising on the chamber dimension of his playing, a subtle rustic quality emerges that deepens its melancholy effect and makes the performances feel all the more intimate, and at one moment Berg's violin sings rapturously and in the next reduces to a whisper. The duo's lyrical settings achieve a cumulative impact more than impress as individual pieces; that said, the heartbreaking “Ritornell,” folk-styled “Taumeln Wie Flocken,” and joyous “Haschen” can't help but stand out for being so affecting.

The connection between the musicians is so strong, in fact, that the twelve pieces (one a CD bonus) rarely sound like improvisations, especially when each has the uncanny ability to respond to the other's melodic cues in the moment and make it sound as if both are following a pre-scripted compositional path. As they play, the picture that emerges is of two informally attired musicians playing in a living room to a small group of families and friends rather than two tuxedoed gentlemen on stage in a cavernous concert hall with the audience at a physical remove.

May 2017