This is a remarkable achievement. All credit
to Metier for daring to issue material that is no easy ride, and
to Philip Mead for his unflagging advocacy of Crumb. The recording
quality is superb, as is the cover art (courtesy of composer Sadie
The two volumes of Makrokosmos represent
a major compositional achievement, within which Crumb explores
a multitude of sonorities and effects (prepared piano, singing,
chanting, groaning …). Makrokosmos I is subtitled
‘Twelve Fantasy-Pieces after the Zodiac for Amplified Piano’.
These movements are grouped in three sets of four, and each of
the three sets ends with a symbol, represented notationally in
the score as well as in the notes themselves - Crucifixus/Capricorn;
The Magic Circle of Infinity/Leo; Spiral Galaxy/Aquarius, respectively.
In fact the movement titles are frequently as evocative as the
music - ‘Pastoral’ (from the Kingdom of Atlantis,
c10,000 BC) - Taurus’; ‘The Phantom Gondolier (Scorpio)’;
‘The Abyss of Time (Virgo)’, and so on.
If only Philip Mead’s booklet notes were
more detailed (less than two pages). But he does rightly point
out two major influences on Crumb: Debussy (pentatonicism, impressionist
haze) and Bartók (nature sounds, clusters, firm rhythms
and the resonance of Crumb’s title with Bartók’s
Mikrokosmos). Cage-like, paper clips, metal chains, thimbles
etc are all used to create timbral diversity.
The first movement, ‘Primeval Sounds (Genesis
I) - Cancer’ begins, appropriately enough, with rumbles
in the very bass end of the piano. The first string glissando
at 1’07 may come as a shock, but it is the resonances that
this gesture initiates that make it interesting. There is the
feeling of a very, very slow funeral march. As the music grows,
pedalled aggregates make for some of the darkest sounds you will
hear from a piano.
The next two (brief) movements in effect form
a pair. ‘Proteus - Pisces’ is distinctly playful;
‘Pastoral’ (from the Kingdom of Atlantis, c10,000
BC) - Taurus’ takes that very playfulness as its point of
departure and elaborates upon it, opening it out. The final movement
of Part I of Volume 1 includes a shout from the pianist (‘Christe’,
appropriately enough for a movement titled ‘Crucifixus’)
followed by hyper-delicate, beautiful high-placed chords.
From Part II, it is perhaps the second movement,
‘Night Spell 1 - Sagittarius’, that is most impressive
in its references to Bartókian Night Music. Mead takes
the dynamic to extremes of pianissimo, so that one has to strain
on occasion to hear it. Magical.
The shouting of names in the ninth movement (‘The
Abyss of Time - Virgo’) brings to mind Stockhausen. Mead
silences any criticism with magnificent virtuosity in the swirls
of notes that invoke ‘Spring Fire’ (Aries). Crumb
is full of surprises - Chopin appears in ‘Dream Images’,
the eleventh movement. The final movement (‘Spiral Galaxy
[SYMBOL]’) is an apt reminder that Mead’s strength
(and Crumb’s) lies in delicacy.
I had to check my player wasn’t malfunctioning
at the beginning of the second book of Makrokosmos as it sounds
just like distortion. High contrast, then, to the perfume of ‘The
Mystic Chord - Sagittarius’.
There is a seemingly infinite textural variety
in these pieces. The last movement of Part I of Mikrokosmos II
demonstrates Crumb’s ear to perfection, where an intensely
beautiful arpeggic gesture meets a glassy rejoinder. ‘Gargoyles’
is a grotesque, relentless low-down march, leading to the virtuosic
climax of ‘Tora! Tora! Tora! (Cadenza Apocalittica’)’,
which finds Mead in his element, despatching lovely roulade after
lovely roulade. The final movement (‘Agnus Dei [SYMBOL]
- Capricorn’) begins with plainchant (on the ‘Agnus
Dei qui tollis …’ text) from the pianist, traversing
a field of the utmost delicacy before leading us to an encounter
with Debussy’s Cathédrale engloutie (2’30)
- an appropriately mysterious space. Haunting music, presented
by a pianist who obviously lives and breathes the experience (Mead
is, of course, a modern music specialist).
The second disc is more disparate, containing
four separate pieces dating from 1962 through to 1980. The Five
Pieces dates from 1962, exactly a decade before Makrokosmos
I and represents the composer’s first inroads into extended
techniques. The first is certainly the ’Quasi improvvisando’
of its indicator, a mood that is to return with palindromic effect
in the final ‘Senza misura, liberamente’. The second
and fourth movements, both marked ‘ruvido, molto energico
- Prestissimo’ provide stellar dances around a static ‘Notturno’.
Moving to 1981, the Gnomic Variations
features a theme (‘Lentamente, deciso’) that alternates
plucked and damped notes. The eighteen variations are (again)
grouped into three sections (here of six each, rather than the
four in the case of both Volumes of Makrokosmos). There is much
variety here - Mead sets up quasi-nocturnes, only to banish their
spells by puckish caprice. Particularly interesting is the use
of double octaves in Variation 15 (‘Implacabilmente’),
where the familiar becomes strangely disorienting. Throughout
these performances one notices how Crumb’s indications come
through strongly in Mead’s realisations (so strongly that
I was able to frequently guess them without looking at the booklet,
only checking them later – try Variaion 17, for example,
The Processional of 1983 (‘Sempre
pulsando, estaticamente’) is mainly played conventionally.
It is of an overtly repetitive nature, but it is repetition that
bears fruit in hypnotism. And it is far from static, also, with
filigree floating around the chords and an internal motor dynamic
that sustains its length. Fascinating listening. It is evident
at all times that Mead knows exactly where he is going.
Leslie Gerber on www.amazon.co.uk
describes the Little Suite for Christmas as ‘second-hand
Messiaen’. A trifle unfairly, I believe.
The subtitle of this collection is ‘after
Giotto’s Nativity frescoes in the Arena Chapel at Padua’.
The seven movements follow the story of the visitation and adoration
of the wise men (Magi), culminating in a ‘Carol of the
Bells’. Musically it alludes to the well-known ‘Coventry
Carol’, so listening to it in December as opposed to
mid-June (i.e. now) might make it even more appealing. As might
by now be imagined, the ‘Berceuse for the Infant Jesu’
is extraordinarily delicate. Personally I cannot detect the ‘quasi
pastorale’ element to ‘The Shepherd’s Noël’
(the third movement), but the quasi-orientalisms of ‘Adoration
of the Magi’ are most appealing (heightened by the
‘altered’ piano sound). The Messiaen influence (as
I like to hear it, pace Gerber) on the ‘Nativity Dance’
(and dance it certainly does) makes the frame of reference all
the wider, given the religio-mystic connotations of Messiaen’s
characteristic harmonies. ‘Canticle of the Holy Night’
has to be one of the most singularly beautiful piano works I have
heard in many a moon, its every whispered utterance making one
strain for more. Again, the tempo/expressive indicator says it
all - ‘Lentamente; misterioso, quasi lontano; flessibile’.
The bell references in the final ‘Carol
of the Bells’ are as unmistakable as they are delightful.
Another triumph for Metier.