A new recording of George Crumbís Makrokosmos is always
something welcome. This one Ė recorded on the occasion of Crumbís
80th birthday Ė is the only live complete one Iíve
come across and therefore possessed of added interest. Such
atmospheric music might not seem to lend itself to a concert
recording. However, the nature of the score is such that the
microphones are always going to be pretty close to the strings
of the pianos, and therefore less receptive to audience noises.
There is in fact very little extraneous noise in this recording
other than a snatch of rather superfluous and reserved applause
right at the end. While the performances have some of that atmosphere
of on-the-edge happenings the performance is as disciplined
and the sound is every bit as clear as any studio version, though
the general balance is more distant and generalised than the
best of the alternatives.
There are a few very good recordings of Crumbís Makrokosmos
around, though not many which also include the two-piano
and percussion Volume III, Music for a Summer Evening.
While Iíve previously mentioned an affection for Robert Nasveldís
recordings on the Attacca label (9371/9372) these only cover
the solo piano works and in any case the current availability
of it is in doubt. Iíve since found the recordings on the Bridge
ĎGeorge Crumb Complete Editioní to be pretty hard to beat in
this repertoire. These are spread over volumes 4, 5 and 8, and
are therefore either a less attractive prospect in terms of
economy, or a more attractive prospect in terms of the extra
bits of Crumb which go with them depending on which way you
look at it. There arenít many recordings which make me jump
out of my skin almost every time I hear them, but those with
Quattro Mani on the Bridge label have plenty of dramatic detail
and such a dynamic impact that the effect can be pretty devastating
even if you approach the pieces well prepared. There are less
than subtle differences as well. The voice in The Phantom
Gondolier in Makrokosmos I for instance is taken
by a female from Berlin PianoPercussion, and I have to say the
haunting male voice from Quattro Mani is a good deal more convincing.
The live recording isnít quite as rich as that on Bridge, and
those knocks and rattles against the frame of the piano are
a bit too distant to have their full impact. This said, on its
own terms Makrokosmos I still has plenty going for it
on this Telos recording. The playing is full of superb technical
wizardry and all of the musical sensitivity you could want.
Makrokosmos II is also for amplified piano. I prefer
the prepared-strings effect in the opening Morgenmusik from
the Berlin players, the clatter from Quattro Mani being somewhat
reminiscent of a rather nasty hangover. The Ghost-Nocturne:
for the Druids of Stonehenge does sound something more like
a cat on a tin roof in Berlin however, the octave-higher voice
not mixing with the strange sliding effects on the piano strings.
Again, there are plenty of convincing noises elsewhere, though
you have to concentrate that little bit extra sometimes to pick
up everything. Played through a decent system and with the volume
up at a respectable level you wonít miss much, though the dynamic
peaks will have you diving for the controls if you delve too
far into the most intimate subtleties of the recording.
With Makrokosmos III the perspective changes, with the
addition of percussion adding salt to the piano timbres and
reflecting the inspiration for the music: Isola di Ulisse,
a 1936 poem by Salvatore Quasimodo. Again, Quattro Mani &
co on the Bridge
label are more dynamic and suggestive, admittedly helped
by a rich acoustic aura. The swannee whistles of the second
movement, Wanderer-Fantasy are always going to be a point
of contention, and with the Berlin recording there isnít really
enough stereo separation to make the calling effect of the two
whistles hit home. The piano playing is, as ever, truly atmospheric
and superbly musical. While Iím reluctant to criticise a live
version on recording/technical grounds I have to say The
Advent as it appears on the Bridge recording has
to be heard. Itís pretty breathtakingly unbelievable as a sheer
wave of sound and texture, something which is barely hinted
at by the Berlin players in comparison. Expectation is also
only really half delivered in the subsequent Myth movement,
where again everything is fine enough. However, the music sounds
more like Ďcontemporary music festivalí fare than something
which will give you cause to leave the lights on after retiring
for the night. Talking of which, Music of the Starry Night
with its Bach quote should be as moving as Ďthat bití towards
the end of Bergís Violin Concerto. It gets me every time,
but still isnít quite haunting enough from the Berlin recording.
The buzzy effect on the strings isnít balanced against the tuned
percussion enough to achieve the required surrealist disembodied
effect, though the whistled melody later on is really magical.
Makrokosmos IV returns to amplified piano without percussion,
and so weíre back to where we were with the first two cycles.
This means: very good, but not quite the equal of those remarkably
well-prepared Bridge recordings. The rhythmic drive of Alpha
Centauri is potent and menacing. The chilling and lyrical
mystery of Beta Cygni is expressed with lightness and
subtle sparkle. The differences between the two recordings can
be expressed in degrees, but the imagination is always seized
and shaken more thoroughly by the recording on the Bridge label.
The Berlin recording and performance is indeed very good, but
doesnít quite make you Ďforgetí in quite the same way. Itís
like when you become engrossed in a fabulous book and the world
stops turning, and when you finally look up from the pages you
can hardly remember where you are or what day it is. This is
the effect the Bridge recordings have on me. These Berlin/Telos
recordings are great, but donít transport me to different galaxies.
I remain rather earthbound; impressed, but only partially taken
on that inner journey which makes a listening session something
you need to plan well in advance, both in terms of emotional
strength as well as ensuring all interruptions will be avoided.
If you are trying to find a handle to obtain a grip on Crumbís
style in this music then a comparison with Messiaen is unavoidable.
There are many atmospheric moments which are something like
Messiaenís landscapes or his more nocturnal pianistic birds,
and others where the addition of a wind machine would take us
almost the whole way to Des canyons aux ťtoiles. George
Crumb is however his own man and the spiritual source for the
movements in Makrokosmos is entirely different to that
On its own terms this recording from Berlin PianoPercussion
is a fine document of a remarkable concert event. I feel privileged
to be able to hear it from the comfort of my home sound system.
There are very many truly beautiful and genuinely powerful moments,
and without a comparison with Quattro Mani I would probably
have had fewer reservations in terms of commentary. If you want
Crumbís complete Makrokosmos in a handy, 2 CD release
with a striking unity of sound and strength in performance then
by all means go for this Telos Music release. If I was in back
working in a shop however, and waving cost-no-object life-changing-experience
alternatives under your nose, it would be those on the Bridge
label which would take pole position.