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George CRUMB (b.1929)
Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death (1962-68)* [29:04]
Quest (1994) [25:41]
Nicholas Isherwood (baritone)*
Ensemble New Art/Fuat Kent
rec. Radiostudio Zurich, 12-15 June 2004
NAXOS 8.559290 [54:45]


George Crumb writes almost as much as you need to know in his own booklet notes for these pieces: “From 1962 until 1970 much of my creative activity was focused on the composition of an extended cycle of vocal works based on the poetry of Federico García Lorca. Of the eight works constituting the cycle, Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death is the largest in conception and the most intensely dramatic in its projection of Lorca's dark imagery. The important formal elements of the work are identified in the title. These are, first, the settings of four of Lorca's most beautiful death-poems: The Guitar, Casida of the Dark Doves, Song of the Rider, 1860, and Casida of the Boy Wounded by the Water. Each of these settings is preceded by an instrumental "refrain" (also containing vocal elements projected by the instrumentalists, in most cases purely phonetic sounds) which presents, in various guises, the rhythmic, fateful motif heard at the beginning of the work. And finally, three long "Death-Drones" based on the interval of the fourth.”

Crumb goes on to describe each piece in detail, but for our purposes it is the general impression which is perhaps most important. For many, this music will represent a fairly archetypical example of avant-garde music of the sixties. Extremes of contrast, seemingly directionless, angular, fragmentary passages, shouting and words declaimed in ‘sprechstimme’ – all elements which can have an aversive effect on the uninitiated. Each piece runs on into the next, so that continuity and intensity is preserved. The poems are not reprinted in the booklet, but I would suggest becoming acquainted with them would help a great deal in accessing Crumb’s intentions. Through all of the echoes and musical commentary from instruments already laden with symbolism (the guitar, for instance, “the primitive voice of the world’s darkness and evil”), the texts are clear, and superbly delivered by Nicholas Isherwood. The prevailing mood is darkly sinister, at times surrealist, sometimes ironic, but Crumb is quick to acknowledge the paths which led to his own solutions – Schubert’s Erlkönig for the Song of the rider for instance, and Mahlerian influences in the final Casida of the Boy Wounded by the Water. This last poem is set to chilling piano harmonics and movingly simple, rocking motifs. With some fascinating sound colourations – twanging jew’s harps, water-tuned crystal glasses, a whole raft of percussion and an electric harpsichord there is enough here to make you think, ‘hey, play that again…’ You certainly won’t feel you’ve ‘got it’ on a single hearing, and repeated visits will reward the listener with a huge spectrum of subtlety.      

Crumb writes, “Quest was composed at the request of the guitarist David Starobin and was commissioned by Albert Augustine, Ltd. The final revised version of the work was completed in February, 1994, and is dedicated to David Starobin and Speculum Musicae. In requesting this new piece he specified only that I write for acoustic guitar and that the guitar part be treated soloistically. Within the chosen sextet of players the guitar remains the principal protagonist, but other instruments, especially the soprano saxophone, can also take over the principal "voice". The inclusion of a wide variety of percussion instruments gave me an exceptionally colourful palette of timbral and sonoric possibilities. I would specifically cite rather unusual instruments such as the Appalachian hammered dulcimer, the African talking drum, and the Mexican rain stick. …although the movement titles are poetic and symbolic, there is no precise programmatic meaning implied. There is one use of musical quotation in the work: phrases from the famous hymn tune Amazing Grace are played by the soprano saxophone - initially, at the conclusion of Dark Paths, over a delicate web of percussion sonority, and finally, in Nocturnal, over a sequentially slowing ostinato of bare fifths in the harp and contrabass. On the very last page of the score a distant echo of the tune is intoned by a harmonica, or, as in this recording, a concertina.”

Quest immediately shows how Crumb has developed over the 30 years since Songs…The music has is in many ways ‘stabilised’, with more immediately accessible (if still greatly attenuated) tonal relationships and resonances. The various ‘fields’ of sound are sharply delineated, and textures effectively corralled so that the guitar sounds clearly through softly played and transparent instrumentation. The relationships with guitar and tuned percussion, dulcimer and double bass are remarkable (III Forgotten Sounds), and the general effect is one of loneliness, distance and timelessness. The last movement, Nocturnal, is sublime.

If, like me, you consider your life with music to be (among other things) a constant exploration of new experiences, then I can think of few better places for widening your horizons. I already knew Crumb’s Makrosmos for piano and knew I liked his approach to extending sound worlds beyond the conventional, but there are some moments in both of these pieces which had my ears in a spin. Superbly played and recorded as usual, you can give these unique works a try for the price of a couple of drinks in a bar so, while such music can never be all things to all people, I’m once again grateful to Naxos for a such a stimulating and intriguing release.

Dominy Clements

see also review by Julie Williams   July Recording of the Month


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