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George CRUMB (b. 1929)
The River of Life (2003) [43:02]
Unto the Hills (2002) [40:20]
Ann Bridge (soprano)
Orchestra 2001/James Freeman;
rec. Lang Concert Hall, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania; 26-27 June 2003, 25-27 November 2003.
BRIDGE 9218 A/B [43:02 + 40:20]


I was told that this disc 'was not exactly easy listening' and had thought that its appeal would be mainly for the completist and those with an academic interest in this composer's work.

However, whilst it certainly has an unusual sound-world, it has at least two other merits. Firstly, it links Crumb firmly to other aspects of American musical tradition. Most obviously, to Ives and a tradition of folk music sources - in this case from the Appalachian Mountains.

Secondly, it gives an insight into the effects of being brought up with a religious musical tradition and the influence that has on someone who went on to write in a very avant-garde way. This applies also to another pillar of the American avant-garde, John Adams, one of whose discs I have also reviewed this month. Both these composers have used the revivalist music they grew up amongst as a starting point for innovative compositions: Crumb in The River of Life and Adams in Hallelujah Junction.

Both the works on this two-disc set are stark, haunting and melancholy. The soprano voice (the composer's daughter) is accompanied by percussion and amplified piano, giving an impression of singing in a church or village hall. The cover and insert notes show Crumb family photographs, including the composer holding the singer in his arms as a baby. Together with the intimate themes of religious songs and lullabies, this adds to the feeling of a family album or home movie.

'River of Life' is subtitled 'Songs of Joy and Sorrow: A Cycle of Hymns, Spirituals and Revival Tunes'. The overtly religious themes will inevitably deter some listeners, but for others the results will be intriguing as you witness Crumb's distinctive sound world being applied to well known hymns such as 'Amazing Grace'. 'One More River to Cross' (based on Noah's Ark) works well, in a humorous and quirky way, as does the strongly rhythmic 'Give Me that Old Time Religion'.

In its better moments, this work mixes humour, bathos and feeling in a distinctive and unique approach. The composer's better-known work often has political overtones, and this is no exception; the use of Negro spirituals alludes to covert signals and messages used by those using the 'underground railroad' to escape slavery. The half-time instrumental interlude, Time is a Drifting River: A Psalm for Daybreak, is welcome in refreshing the ear between the two sections of four songs each.

The second disc, 'Unto the Hills' , subtitled 'Songs of Sadness, Yearning and Innocence' , although not having the overtly religious connections of its predecessor, is actually less accessible. The songs are predominantly melancholy and often take premature death as their theme. There is a reminder here of the hardness of pioneer life, contrasting with those sentimentally nostalgic rural frontiers portraits, and that folk music is not always upbeat and bucolic. However, the result can become relentless. An instrumental interlude half way through the disc again provides welcome aural refreshment.

This recording is part of a complete set of Crumb's works issued by Bridge, Unto the Hills has already been issued, on Volume 7 - coupled with the better known Black Angels (famously recorded by the Kronos Quartet). This is an updated and extended version presented for the first time in its entirety. The River of Life is a premiere recording. The series is interesting in that it shows the prolific production and diversity of this composer who, far from being a one hit wonder, writes extensively and for a wide range of instruments and voices.

Julie Williams




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