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George CRUMB (b.1929)
Vox Balaenae (1971) [18:50]
Federico’s Little Songs for Children (1986) [13:24]
An Idyll for the Misbegotten (Images III) (1986) [9:51]
Eleven Echoes of Autumn (Echoes I) (1965) [17:36]
New Music Concerts Ensemble/Robert Aitken
rec. CBC Glenn Gould Studio, 13 April 2003 and Performing Arts Centre, The Country Day School, King City, Ontario, 10-12 September 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.559205 [59:42]

Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale), composed in 1971 for the New York Camerata, is scored for flute, cello and piano, all to be amplified in concert performance. The work was inspired by the singing of the humpback whale, a tape recording of which the composer had heard two or three years before writing the work. The piece opens with a prologue in which the instruments are shown in a wide variety of colours. The flautist has much singing into the flute, there are roaring strings from the piano, and the cellist’s opening ‘flautando’ whistles over them all. In many ways this is seminal Crumb, with the techniques employed embodying his philosophy and desire to live entirely within the music, to extract everything humanly possible from the available materials. His sound-world is searchingly experimental, but always idiomatic and respectful of the player and the instruments. The cello’s flute tones sing like seabirds, the flautists vocalisations give a breadth of expression beyond pure notes, and the piano’s strings can become a slide guitar, a thrumming sitar, a bass drum, an echo box, or suggest images such as the sparkling of light through water.

There are of course quite a few conventionally played notes in this piece, and the melodic lines have an exotic, sometimes oriental feel. Open intervals and expressive lines draw the listener into an often beguiling aural environment, and the return of recognisable musical motives provide handles on which to hang the work’s variation form, framed by a prologue and an epilogue. Beautifully performed, if I have any criticism at all then it is in the engineer’s approach to the ‘amplified in concert performance’ instruction. The impression is there with the cello, which is a little more distant in the soundstage but beefed up somewhere along the line, and the alto flute sound becomes a little opaque through the effect given. The piano seems however to be unaffected. While these are relatively innocuous effects I think it might have been better to leave the ‘amplification’ factor out of the equation altogether.

Federico’s Little Songs for Children, written for the Jubal Trio, was completed during the summer of 1986. The seven little poems constituting the Canciones para Niños by Federico Garciá Lorca reflect many different aspects of a child’s fantasy world. The mood can be reflective, playful, mock-serious, gently ironic, or simply joyous. An innocently playful piccolo colours the opening Señorita of the Fan, and each song creates its own atmosphere around the various poems – lyrical flute and harp for Afternoon, the birdsong of the alto flute in A Song Sung, a whispering and wistful voice, sliding harp notes played as the pedals are changed and the more breathy tones of the bass flute characterise the Snail. With each song being short in duration, this cycle is a magical world of imagination and contrast. The relatively gentle flute and harp are unthreatening but capable of their own extremes. With the final Silly Song returning to the piccolo, the sense of a completed journey is satisfying both musically and dramatically.

An Idyll for the Misbegotten for amplified flute and percussion was composed in 1985. The composer states: "I feel that ‘misbegotten’ well describes the fateful and melancholy predicament of the species homo sapiens at the present moment in time", suggesting that the music be "heard from afar, over a lake, on a moonlit evening in August". Such specific instructions might seem impractical, but in fact they are a useful guide for musicians when seeking to recreate the atmosphere desired by the composer – as effective as the hand gestures of Messiaen describing the flight of a bird, even when none of us students understood a word of his eloquent French. The scoring, employing two of man’s oldest instruments, conjures up an often rough hewn primeval atmosphere. Flautist Robert Aitken is the work’s dedicatee, and of course has the technical aspects of the piece well under control – whistle tones and harmonics among them. The use of a quotation from Debussy’s Syrinx is of course instantly recognisable.

Eleven Echoes of Autumn was composed during the spring of 1966 for the Aeolian Chamber Players. The work consists of eleven pieces or echi, which are performed without interruption. Each of the echi exploits certain timbral aspects of each instrument, in the composer’s words: "for example, eco 1 for piano alone is based entirely on the 5th partial harmonic, eco 2 on violin harmonics in combination with 7th partial harmonics produced on the piano by drawing a piece of hard rubber along the strings. A delicate aura of sympathetic vibrations emerges in echi 3 and 4, produced in the latter case by alto flute and clarinet playing into the piano, causing the strings to vibrate sympathetically. At the conclusion of the work the violinist achieves a mournful, fragile timbre by playing with the bow hair completely slack." Such technical descriptions may or may not help, but do give an impression of some of the inner workings of the music. The overall effect is of organic growth though an extended ‘broken arch’, sometimes through atmospheric, Webernesque spareness: sometimes with the filigree passagework which is a fingerprint of Crumb’s expressive palette.

As far as programmatic content is concerned, the composer guides the listener towards the significance of a motto-quote from Federico García Lorca: "... y los arcos rotos donde sufre el tiempo", which translates as; "... and the broken arches where time suffers", whose words are softly intoned as a preface to each of three cadenzas. Again superbly performed, the piano possibly has a little too much of the advantage as far as recorded balance goes, pushing the other instruments aside in the ff of the climax. The engineers will have zoomed in on the strings in order to pick up all those subtle, quiet effects, and this is the penalty. Slight caveats aside, the recording is very good for all of the works on this disc, set in a pleasantly resonant acoustic and with plenty of detail - without placing the instruments right up your nose.

As ever, this kind of music won’t be everyone’s cup of tea; and those keen on ocean noises should be made aware that Vox Balaenae is more Crumb than Whale. If you are already aware of George Crumb’s fascinating sound world then you will know what to expect, and while there are one or two other versions of these pieces in the catalogue you won’t be disappointed by the New Music Concerts Ensemble. At bargain price there’s no better place to start a new exploration. George Crumb’s star in the recording catalogue continues to wax, and with Naxos’ American Series producing fine recordings of his work there can be little doubt that this trend will continue, with every justification.

Dominy Clements

Naxos American Classics page


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