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Mythical Dances
George CRUMB (b.1929)
Makrokosmos IV – Celestial Mechanics (1979) [24:23]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Le Sacre du printemps (1913) [33:46]
Belli Piano Duo
rec. August 2006, “La Fenice”, Amadola, Italy
WERGO WER68072 [58:06]
Experience Classicsonline

This is the second instalment in Enrico Belli’s project to record all four of George Crumb’s Makrokosmos – the first of which is reviewed here. As with the combination of Debussy with Crumb, the decision has been made to mix the music up rather than keep the two composers’ pieces complete. The programming here is Crumb’s Alpha Centauri, Stravinsky’s Le Sacre part I, Crumb’s Beta Cygni and Gamma Draconis, Stravinsky’s Le Sacre part II, and Crumb’s Delta Orionis to finish. The logic of pairing these works is fair, but the only reason for hustling them up in such a way is given rather lamely on the back cover: “[the] interweaving of works by Igor Stravinsky and George Crumb opens entirely new horizons of perception.” I’m not going to harp on about this for long, but I do wonder for whom these ‘horizons of perception’ will be opened. Newcomers to such works are more likely to be confused, wondering which piece is which. Old aurally wizened lags like your average MusicWeb-International reviewer are more likely to respond irritably, preferring to broaden their own horizons through playing multiple versions of the same piece through wobbly stacks of old CD players or trying to sing along to a karaoke production of ‘Wozzeck’ just for laughs. I will agree, putting different pieces of music against each other can change perceptions, but this rarely has durability in a library collection as its end result. I didn’t feel particularly enriched by having these pieces chopped about in this way, but will gladly give way to the experiences of anyone who ‘sees the light’ as a result.
 
My reference for comparison with Crumb’s Makrokosmos IV is that of Robert Nasveld on the Attacca label, 9371 and 9372. My main reason for selecting this version is that it has always come out on top, all other recordings which I have come across long having gone by the wayside. Add to this the association Nasveld has had with Crumb himself, something which gives his recording some status of authority. Unencumbered by Stravinsky, Nasveld, forming a duo with Jacob Bogaard, creates a sense of organic flow between the movements which has its own structure and logic. Their recording penetrates deep within the piano, much as a well amplified performance should in a live concert. This is essential, not for creating DJ loudness, but in revealing the subtleties of the inner workings of string harmonics, plucked strings, percussive effects, preparation of strings and all kinds of neat tricks, all of which were bigger news in 1979 than they are now.
 
With all due respect for the Belli duo’s talents, there is no comparison between these recordings. There is a distinct lack of any real impression of the detail of sonic activity within the piano, and any resonance there are come across as a weak echo of the performer’s actions rather than the musical consequence of the composer’s instructions. It’s sometimes as if the amplifier had broken down, but the concert went ahead anyway. There is more substance in the effects in Gamma Draconis, but the comparative effect is of the musicians going at the music like a bull in a china shop, and the results are jangly and unattractive. Crumb’s ideas still survive, barely, as fresh and original in this recording, but the music can and should sound so much better.
 
Le Sacre du printemps on pianos in various forms has been something of a collector’s hobby for me. Stravinsky’s own piano duet version is not the only variant available, but there are several versions of this on disc, with just two being Philip Moore and Simon Crawford-Philips on Deux-Elles and on Naxos, with Benjamin Frith and Peter Hill. Observant critics will see that this latter release sports the label ‘Music for two pianos’, but before I get ‘aghast’ e-mails claiming gross incompetence on my part I would just like to point out that the earlier edition says ‘Music for Four Hands’, the ‘Rite’ indeed being the ‘right’ version for piano duet as opposed to piano duo. Out of these I find myself preferring the Naxos recording these days, with its greater sense of atmosphere in the recording. Dag Achatz and Roland Pöntinen’s recording on BIS should also be considered. I was initially happier with Enrico and Olivia Belli in their Stravinsky over their Crumb, but alarm bells rather than ‘Mythical Dances’ soon started ringing.
 
I can’t help but think the Belli Duo have come to see this purely as concert repertoire, rather than music for ballet. This is an important aspect of this arrangement and of the music as a whole, but for me the impression should still be left that the music is strongly associated with choreography. I want to sense Stravinsky at the piano, hacking out the score in reduction for the benefit of Diaghilev’s dancers, the smell of sweat and chalk and the instructor’s voice cracking out its demands like the whip of a circus ringmaster. From the beginning, that lonely melody becomes stretched and mauled about, so that the sense of rhythm is not only given added mystic aura, but is lost entirely. The impact of the Augures printaniers is better, but to my mind lacks real urgency, and the same goes for the Jeu de rapt, where those syncopated rhythms are over-pedalled and lose their feisty hammer-blow strength. I could go on, but you should be getting the idea by now. The music has a feeling of a cooking recipe, fine and expensive ingredients all prepared and almost formed into haute cuisine but brought out of the oven just a few minutes too early. The centre of the cake is just a little too raw, the meat too bloody, the soufflé flat and uninviting rather than quivering with excitement at its peak of perfection. Heavy, mannered chugging in the second section at 1:04 of the Mystic Circles of the Young Girls is another instance of what I mean – lighter, more separated figuration is surely required here, and I can’t imagine anyone wanting to dance to what follows. The Belli Duo’s Stravinsky is not bad, but we already have better recordings, so I can’t deny my preference for the greater élan of Frith and Hill. Adding faint praise to my colleague’s damning of Vol. I in this unfurling set doesn’t augur too well for Wergo’s project with Enrico Belli. I hope their future horizons open with a little more subtle finesse.
 
Dominy Clements       
 

 


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