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George CRUMB (b. 1929)
An Idyll for the Misbegotten (1985) [9.37]
Zizi Mueller (flute); Gordon Gottlieb, Benjamin Herman, Stephen Paysen (percussion)
rec. 28 April 1987, venue not given
Vox Balaenae (The Voice of the Whale) (1969) [20.13]
Zizi Mueller (flute); Fred Sherry (cello); James Cromwell (piano)
rec. 22 May 1985, venue not given
Madrigals: Books 1, 2 and 3 (1965-9) [33:27]
Jan DeGaetani (mezzo)
University of Pennsylvania Chamber Players
rec. 24 October 1969, venue not given
originally appeared on Acoustic Research LP 0654 085
NEW WORLD NW 357-2 [62.44]



You could be forgiven for thinking that American music consists of yards and yards of Philip Glass, Steve Reich and John Adams, all born in the 1930s and 1940s at the one end of the scale – friendly, rhythmic, minimalist, and something definitely 21st Century at the other end like the challenging and seemingly impenetrable Elliot Carter, who at 97 years young has recently (January 2006) had a mini-festival devoted him and the still thought-provoking Charles Ives. These are the names we regularly come across at present. 

There was a time when George Crumb was regularly heard and a time when his output was more easily available on record; sadly not so much now. It is especially good then to have gathered together three of his most representative and fascinating works. Coming back to them again after over twenty years they remain, unique, challenging and extraordinary.

George Crumb’s official website states that “Crumb has developed a style that uses new techniques in a dramatic, narrative manner”. The interesting booklet notes by newspaper critic Michael Walsh states similarly that Crumb adds to his sense of the dramatic an “unfailingly imaginative ear for sonorities with such a highly developed sense of myth and ritual”. These works, although not his most famous certainly demonstrate these points.

Listening to the extraordinary and virtuosic Madrigals also allows an opportunity to hear again the amazing voice of the much lamented Jan DeGaetani who died all too soon in 1989. There is a photo of her in the booklet with the composer. In addition Fred Sherry that irrepressible - and it must be admitted eccentric - doyen of contemporary American music is also featured. His performance of Elliot Carter’s recent Cello Concerto has just (January 2006) come out on the Bridge label.

Zizi Mueller is another outstanding performer of modern music and she manages to bring off the rare, extraordinary and carefully imagined sound-world that opens Vox Balaenae where she has to sing and play the flute at the same time. This is an effective idea not however aided by a poorly balanced recording. I should add that the recordings in general are typical of their period seeming now rather ‘boxy’. I know that flute quarter-tones are difficult to bring off but these appear to be too wide and therefore unsubtle.

These Crumb performances, going back now some years, are mostly unsurpassable, which is fortunate because hardly anyone else has tackled them in the recording studio.

Just to give you a brief background to each piece starting with the Madrigals. These consist of twelve aphoristic settings of that most dark of poets Federico Garcia Lorca. They are divided into four books each book being a triptych of pieces and each book being for a slightly different instrumental grouping. The result is pointillistic. I am reminded of the spectral composers, like Murail, who have emerged in the last decade. The music is unthinkable without Webern but takes it a stage further. Overall the effect is, quite rightly, dark, disquieting and yet quite captivating.

An Idyll for the Misbegotten is for flute and four percussion players, creating an utterly unique sound world. The composer intends the ‘Misbegotten’ to be seen as mankind which has become “Illegitimate in the natural world”. He adds later, and is quoted, in the booklet, “we find ourselves monarchs of a dying world”. The scoring conjures up in the imagination some of man’s most primitive and natural instruments.

Even more curious and original in concept is Vox Balaenae subtitled Voice of the Whale. It is here that the flautist must hum, sing and play at the same time - the composer calls it a ‘Vocalise’ and this is subtitled “... for the beginning of time”. This should not be seen as a gimmick but as a seemingly transcendental sound casting back into dark and primitive times. There are also some extraordinary high cello glissandi which sound like animal noises and flute flutter-tonguing which, especially when combined with the pianist striking the interior bass strings of the piano with a soft drum stick, creates a most delicate and misty atmosphere. This ‘tone-poem’, as I suppose we could describe it, falls into eight sections with such titles as Proterozoic and Mesozoic in between much longer opening and closing sections. These sections refer to dim and distant times in past history: for instance the Mesozoic era is approximately 60 million years ago, hence ‘the beginning of time’. Anyway this music successfully conjures up the most beautiful, prehistoric sounds, all clearly realized by the composer and his superb performers.

To sum up. You may feel that you would prefer these works as part of the ongoing George Crumb complete works recorded by the American label ‘Bridge’. I have not heard any of that series and I am sure that they will be better recorded and probably very well played,. These performances are however ‘classic’ and originally appeared on ‘The Recorded Anthology of American music’ series. We hear them performed therefore by the first artists who tackled them when the music was fresh, exciting and even more controversial. They exude an air of authenticity and revolution. I recommend this disc whole-heartedly.

Gary Higginson





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