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George CRUMB (b. 1929)
Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death (1962-68) [29:04]: Refrain One [1:25]; I The Guitar / Death Drone I [4:20]; Refrain Two [0:52]; II Casida of the Dark Doves [4:15]; Refrain Three [1:06]; Death-Drone II [1:49]; III Song of the Rider, 1860 [1:56]; Cadenza Apassionata for two drummers [1:32]; Refrain Four [1:05]; IV Casida of the Boy Wounded by the Water [2:09]; Death Drone III [8:36]
Quest (1994) [25:41] Refrain I [1:08]; I Dark Paths [5:07]; II Fugitive Sounds [2:09]; Refrain 2 [0:42]; III Forgotten Sounds [4:22]; IV Fugitive Sounds [1:06]; Refrain 3 [1:04]; V Nocturnal [10:04]
Nicholas Isherwood (baritone); Alexander Swete (guitar/amplified guitar); Franzisco Obieta (double bass/amplified double bass); Carmen Erb (percussion); Peter Degenhardt (piano/harpsichord); Hugo Read (soprano saxophone); Silke Aichorn (harp).
Ensemble New Art/Fuat Kent
rec. Radiostudio Zurich, 12-15 June 2004
NAXOS 8.559290 [54:45]


This disc has been a sheer pleasure to review. Naxos are to be commended on their rapidly broadening repertoire and its extent. This disc also has playing and recording of excellent quality.

The first of the two works is based on and inspired by poems of Lorca. The singing and recitative is for bass voice with electric guitar, amplified double bass, piano, harpsichord and percussion. The image from Lorca's works of the guitar as the primitive voice of the world's darkness and evil underpins the work, which sets four poems (the named movements) on the theme of death, embodying ancient Spanish tradition. Despite the darkness of the material, there is a haunting mystical beauty in the resulting music which makes it complex and thought-provoking rather than unremittingly gloomy.

Its structure and sound-world are immediately recognisable to anyone familiar with the composer's better known piece, 'Black Angels' recorded by the Kronos Quartet, although also by the Tale Quartet from Denmark. Despite the similarities, this work has greater subtlety and nuance; it come out of a lengthy project in which Crumb set Lorca's poetry in four different works, of which this is one.

Naxos now have a policy of putting additional information on their website,, rather than giving some of this information on disc covers or accompanying notes. Whilst this understandable where the details are very lengthy, such as a two-disc set in the Very Best of.. series, here I would have liked to have the text of the poems set in the disc booklet so that they were readily to hand whilst listening to this otherwise excellent recording of a complex and unusual work.

The second piece was written for the guitarist David Starobin, who has played on all Crumb's recorded works for plucked instruments - mandolin in The Ancient Voices of Children, electric guitar in Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death, sitar in Lux Aeterna and banjo in The Four Moons. He asked that this work be for acoustic guitar. The resulting piece is a mini-concerto with the guitar taking a 'solo' role against a small ensemble. The soprano saxophone has quite a prominent role - for example in the opening of the second movement, where it introduces a quotation from the Scottish hymn 'Amazing Grace' - making this almost a 'double concerto' for small ensemble. Accompanying this are double bass, harp and percussion. The combination of the guitar with this group creates a mesmerising and beautiful effect, with a glistening resonance of sound.

The work repays listening a number of times; it is not entirely straightforward to grasp but grows on the listener with repetition. Although the first, and slightly longer, work is the title track, I like this second work very much and have found it quite fascinating. I have replayed it several times and enjoyed it more each time than the last.

If you like 'Black Angels' you will find this a recognisable approach. If you find 'Black Angels' rather intense, dissonant and hard hitting, this disc may help you to reconsider Crumb's work in a more positive light. If you are interested in modern writing for the guitar, the second work is a gem. If you have any interest in contemporary music, this is interesting music performed and recorded very well for a bargain price.

Julie Williams



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