George CRUMB (b.1929)
CD 1
Makrokosmos - Volume I (1972/73) [34:10]
Makrokosmos - Volume II (1972/73) [31:27]
CD 2
Makrokosmos - Volume III Music for a Summer Evening (1965) [36:48]
Makrokosmos IV Celestial Mechanics (1979) [22:22]
Berlin PianoPercussion
rec. live, 24 March 2009, Radialsystem V, Berlin
TELOS MUSIC TLS093 [66:32 + 59:11]

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 for Messiaen.

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.

Dominy Clements

Very good live recording.