George CRUMB (b.1929) Sun and Shadow (2009) [15:24] Voices from the Heartland (2010) [46:31]
Anne Crumb (soprano), Patrick Mason (baritone)
Orchestra 2001/James Freeman
rec. 27-28 July 2013, 12-14 October 2012 (Voices from the Heartland), Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.
Complete Crumb Edition - Vol.16 BRIDGE RECORDS 9413 [62:03]
The Bridge Records’ label continues its superb George Crumb edition with another brace of significant song cycles. The title Sun and Shadow comes from the name sometimes given to Spain as a land of ‘sol y sombra’, and the cycle is a continuation of Crumb’s obsession with the poetry of Federico García Lorca. If you don’t know Crumb’s idiom, this is a good introduction to his songs, with directness of communication when it comes to the text, and highly atmospheric and imaginative use of the piano, with strings plucked and thrummed in a variety of ways to create a gentle orchestra of stunning colours and effects. Anne Crumb is as ever superb in giving clarity to the poems, which are sung in English and printed as such in the booklet. It would be nice to have had the Spanish originals as well, and with it being such a prevalent language in both the US and elsewhere it seems a little contumelious to have left them out, but this is a small point.
Contrast and surprise are ever present in Crumb’s songs. We hear castanets here, the pianist bellowing lines from a distance, as well as percussion sounds which reach a violent peak in Dance of the Moon in Santiago. The cycle Sun and Shadow is an object lesson in picturesque song writing, and uniquely Crumb.
Voices from the Heartland is subtitled American Songbook VII, and is the final volume in a vast cycle with which Crumb was occupied for more than a decade. With the Songbooks, Crumb takes traditional melodies but arranges them into some of the most remarkable settings you are ever likely to hear. The opening Softly and Tenderly is spooky in the extreme, with a spoken and whispered voice garlanded with sliding and shimmering percussion noises which create an evocative and nerve-bending atmosphere which will have you believing in “the voices of dead ancestors.” As with Sun and Shadow there is never a dull moment, but contrasts here reach greater extremes, with a battery of percussion and the rich baritone of Patrick Mason in rhythmic songs of high impact such as Ghost Dance. Unmistakable African sounds inhabit the rousing duet Lord, Let Me Fly! Deep nocturnal evocations bring us back down to The Kanawha River at Dusk, and Glory Be to the New-Born King is a remarkable mixture of rhythmic ‘swing’ and complicated variation in the piano and Indian drums. The War of the Sexes actually mixes two songs simultaneously in two different keys: Come All Ye Fair and Tender Maidens and On Top of Old Smoky, a technical challenge and a fascinating listening experience. The hymn Beulah Land is another beautiful setting, the words emerging out of an aura of gently caressed instruments, while Old Blue sees the dog engaged in sniffing around and brushing and scratching the piano and percussion with paws and tail. The final piece is Song of the Earth, and at just over 13 minutes the longest in the entire American Songbook series. It “combines three Navajo chants into a kind of suite”, starting with “In beauty may I walk”, and ending in “Forever…”, a perfect and profound, almost silent end to an incredible masterpiece.
If you have been put off listening to contemporary ‘art songs’ in the past you owe it to yourself to re-ignite the spark with the songs of George Crumb. His world is uncompromising, but only in the demanding of resources which express his chosen texts to the greatest effect. These effects can be startling and brutal, but you can be sure than anything Crumb does is in the service of poetry and a kind of lyricism which is entirely natural to the human voice in all its breadth of potential. This release is just one of many which have all of these qualities, and I would hope that even the briefest introduction to Crumb’s imagination would invite and reward the most far-reaching exploration.