George CRUMB
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.

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 is a 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.

Dominy Clements

Superb release – atmospheric and highly original.