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George CRUMB (b. 1929)
The Complete Piano Music: Makrokosmos 1a (1972-3) [38’19]. Makrokosmos 2 b (1973) [34’40]. Five Pieces for Piano c (1962) [11’51]. Gnomic Variationsc (1981) [23’35]. Processional c (1983) [11’27]. A Little Suite for Christmas A. D. 1979 c (1980) [14’26].
Philip Mead (piano) Rec. Old Concert Hall of Manchester University on a August 27th, b January 12th, 2002, c June 17th-18th, 2003 METIER MSV CD92067 [135’30: 73’29 + 62’01].

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 Harrison).

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, ‘Sonoro, maestoso’).

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 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.

Colin Clarke

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