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CD: Crotchet


George CRUMB (b. 1929)
Makrokosmos I and II (1965) [65:20]
Ellen Ugelvik (piano)
rec. 18-21 May 2007, Sofienberg Church, Oslo, Norway. Hybrid SACD. DDD
Experience Classicsonline

George Crumb's Makrokosmos I and II is varied, compelling, at times beautiful and stimulating music for piano. It forms a cornerstone of the century's solo keyboard music, though it no so entrenched in the repertoire as it ought to be. Recordings like this one may  go some way towards changing that.
Both Makrokosmos books are played here with total commitment, sensitivity and great technical brilliance by Ellen Ugelvik. Norwegian, Ugelvik has a policy of seeking out new contemporary works for exposure on disk - often for the first time. She also collaborates with such composers as Louis Andriessen, Christian Blom, Alwynne Pritchard - and George Crumb. It's not clear here how far the two were in touch in the production of this recording. It's certainly authoritative with a light but steady pair of hands.
Crumb's approaches to music were those of a child from a highly musical family which had access to a broad range of scores and experiences; he was no ideologue or theoretician from the academies. Although he did receive a formal musical education, his views on humans' relationships with nature and the primacy of mystery and sonority play a greater role in his music - as is the case with Berg, perhaps, a composer Crumb has always admired.
The Makrokosmos are just as redolent as the music of Webern, though: sparse, translucent, precise, expressive almost to the point of non-being. At the start of his career in the early 1960s Crumb bided his time. Perhaps to thoroughly assimilate and adjust these Second Viennese School influences; and others such as Mahler, Dallapiccola, Debussy and of course Bartók. A slow rate of compositions grew steadily. Before long, George Crumb was thought of as the leading American composer of his generation.
A persistent feature of these works was an extra-musical apparatus - numerologies, symbols and naming conventions - in support of the awe Crumb felt for his natural subject matter in particular.
The two Makrokosmos are typical in shunning counterpoint, and any kind of attention to over-rich timbres or textures. A pulsing and exposed simplicity is achieved - not quite crystalline, as is Boulez's piano music; nor yet reductive as is Cage's. Silence and pause, space and reflection are not so important to Crumb as they are to, say, Elliott Carter or Lukas Foss. There are also quotes in Makrokosmos from earlier composers, Chopin, Rachmaninov, perhaps, and Richard Addinsell!
The work was completed in 1972/3 and is described as 24 "fantasy pieces after the Zodiac for amplified piano". There is also a part for a whistler. Crumb notated the very demanding whistling part(s) in the bass clef. Women performers have to transpose. Any performer - it's obvious - needs to practise in order to achieve significant voice control and precise intonation so as to make the most of these parts. Similarly the pianism required for Makrokosmos is not insignificant … Crumb insists that the pianist stay seated and minimise gesture: this is music to be heard not observed!
At the same time, Makrokosmos is built on drama and the impact of - unexpected but never spurious - vocal effects. Ugelvik scores well here. Her real gift in this recording is to have made such a secure, expert and unambiguous fusion between respecting and reflecting Crumb's compositional technique on the one hand, and to have drawn out almost every drop of his penetrating imagination on the other.
Volume 8 in Robert Shannon's complete Crumb edition (Bridge 9155) would be another recommendation; the composer himself is known to have responded warmly to Laurie Hudicek's recording from 2002 (on Furious Artisans 6805) of the first Volume only. Ugelvik's must now be considered a worthy front-runner.
Each part takes about half an hour to play; Crumb has admitted that Debussy's two books of Préludes were amongst his models. Each piece is linked to a sign of the Zodiac, has the initials of someone born under that sign; many have titles like "Atlantis ca 10,000 BC" and "Ghost Nocturne for the Druids of Stonehenge".
So this is clearly music to be listened to very carefully; close attention to the extra-musical resonances may not be essential - or add much - for everyone. Ugelvik seems aware of this; she projects the music as broadly and openly as possible. Either way, harmonic and tonal consistency on Crumb's part coupled with the way the Ugelvik has so completely absorbed the required idiom make concentrated listening to Makrokosmos on the sensitively-recorded SACD a spell-binding experience.
Mark Sealey


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