George CRUMB (b.1929) Complete Crumb Edition, Vol.15 The Ghosts of Alhambra (2009) [18:57]
Voices from a Forgotten World (2006) [48:19]
Patrick Mason (baritone), David Starobin (guitar), Daniel Druckman (percussion) (Ghosts), Jamie van Eyck (mezzo), Patrick Mason (baritone), Orchestra 2001/James Freeman (Voices)
rec. 29-30 June 2010, The Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City (Ghosts), 12-14 October 2008, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.
BRIDGE RECORDS 9335 [67:26]
The Bridge label’s excellent Complete Crumb Edition has
been a gradually unfurling project for over ten years now, and
with volume 15 we find première recordings of two recent song-cycles.
The Ghosts of Alhambra sees Crumb returning to his favourite
poet, Federico García Lorca, the Spanish feel of the music deliberately
enhanced with extensive use of a guitar. Percussion is the other
main source of sonority, and Crumb’s extensive expertise in
this field creates a fascinatingly wide use of unusual and highly
atmospheric and pictorial effects. The ‘Bells of Cordóba’ of
Dawn for instance are illustrated by ringing instruments
both tuned and untuned, and the gypsies who Dance thrive
on bongos and castanets. Such descriptions fail entirely to
convey the musical subtleties of Crumb’s instrumentation. The
haunting effect of many of the songs and of the cycle as a whole
is both cumulative and powerful. Patrick Mason’s singing of
these texts from the Poema del cante jondo is full of
character. His vocal flexibility more than capable of communicating
the range of these songs, from nocturnal whispers to genuinely
scary personification of death.
From a Spanish Songbook, we move to ‘A cycle of American Songs
from North and South, East and West. Voices from a Forgotten
World, a kind of appendix to the four-part American Songbook
series, takes its ten sources from a wide variety of American
song, with Native American Navajo and Ojibwa songs alongside
early settlers’ ballads and folk-songs. As with the Ghosts,
there isa vast array of percussion, this time in the
form of an ‘orchestra’ with a pianist and four individual players.
Crumb’s work usually takes and uses the original melody in the
vocal part, but completely redefines each song in terms of atmosphere,
harmony and sonorities. The result is a confluence of familiar
tunes, and often chillingly moving or strikingly atmospheric
accompaniments which take on their own life and identity. Bringing
in the Sheaves is made for instance into a timeless and
mysterious ‘otherworldly’ piece, Somebody Got Lost in a Storm
becomes a violent and tortured song, one case in which the
original melody was re-written while still retaining something
of a ‘Negro spiritual’ character. The contrast with male and
female voices is a useful one over the nearly 50 minute expanse
of this major contribution to the repertoire, but at no stage
does one have the feeling the work is outstaying its welcome.
Such is the variety and imaginative invention Crumb brings to
his ‘orchestration’ that your ears are open and alert to every
second. The composer’s musical idiom is not simplistic, but
neither is it abstract or overcomplicated. The simplest idea,
such as the parallel moving notes of The House of the Rising
Sun, has us falling ‘into’ the song in a direct and involving
way. Humour is another element which keeps us going, such as
the heavy and unsubtle drum of Hallelujah, I’m a Bum!
It’s daft to talk about highlights in a cycle from which every
song is a gem in its own right, but Crumb’s way with the Navajo
Song of the Thunder and Ojibwa Firefly Song is
sensitive and alert to the meaning of the words. There are remarkably
haunting sounds to be heard in Beautiful Dreamer, and
the well-known song ’Tis the Gift to be Simple – one
it might seem impossible to re-invent after Aaron Copland’s
Appalachian Spring – is restored to its original intention
as a dancing song with a driving underlying tempo of ‘Allegretto
meccanico’. The supernatural feel of many of the songs is underlined
by the final song, The Demon Lover (A Ghostly Ballad),
which chills with its unearthly percussion effects.
Superbly performed and recorded, this is an impressive addition
to what is already an almost overwhelming body of work. The
extensive booklet notes are also provided with all song texts,
in the case of the Lorca songs both in Spanish and English.
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