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