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David CRUMB (b. 1962)
September Elegy (2001) [13:21]
Fritz Gearhart (violin); Corey Hamm (piano)
Soundings (1994) [7:48]
Jerome Simas (clarinet); Steve Vacchi (bassoon); Corey Hamm (piano)
Red Desert Triptych (2006-2012) [35:24]
Marcantonio Barone (piano)
Primordial Fantasy for solo piano and chamber ensemble (2002) [8:38]
Marcantonio Barone (piano)
chamber ensemble/Robert Ponto
rec. Beall Hall, University of Oregon School of Music and Dance, 2011-2014
BRIDGE 9450 [65:29]

The Bridge label has done sterling work releasing the remarkable works of George Crumb, but this is the first time I’ve come across his son David’s music. It must be a blessing and possibly a curse to have a father renowned in the same field as yourself, but with this programme of “all première recordings, composed within a timespan of two decades” we are faced with a voice whose individual character shines through, and whose creative path is clearly distinctive and different to that of Crumb the elder.

Work on September Elegy was started before the 9/11 tragedy in the U.S., but the effect of such an event during its composition resulted in an inevitable and appropriate dedication to the victims of the attack. Framed by melancholy and lyrical moods, there is a “sudden dissolution” at the centre of the piece which stands for violence and destruction. This all leads to a moving final coda into which the spirit of J.S. Bach is invoked through haunting quotes of a chorale as the notes reach out into infinity.

Soundings for the unusual combination of clarinet, bassoon and piano, opens with a trembling atmosphere which embraces the shadow of Stravinsky, and not only in the higher register of the bassoon. The composer admits to “a raw energy and level of excitement that might be expected from a (relatively) young composer”, but this is superbly written for the instruments, with both idiomatic and indeed at times virtuoso exploration of timbre and individuality in the high registers. The occasional use of damped piano strings is the only family ‘trademark’ sound here.

David Crumb describes Red Desert Triptych as “arguably my most ambitious work to date … a veritable ‘symphony’ for solo piano”, though each movement is performable as a stand-alone piece. The work was initially inspired by the same national parks of southern Utah which resulted in Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles, and although there is no real stylistic comparison there is a similarity of scale and vision in the slow majesty of the first movement, Rock Cathedrals Rising. Vast forms and vistas are conjured through sustained and freely ringing piano strings, the density of the chord progressions gathering together to create a climactic section which continues to grow and climb and as in life, the real summit always intangible and just beyond reach.

The second movement is Dance of the Hoodoos, the title not explained in the composer’s booklet notes but presumably indicating a move away from America to the African continent. These movements are “not intended to be depictive or programmatic”, but as a personal response to nature this second is as potent a statement as the first. There is a greater and more pulse-oriented energy here, though this melts into a vanishing horizon before regaining rhythmic cohesion and drive, the coda once again spreading out towards huge and awe-inspiring skies.

The final movement takes the F minor fugue subject from J.S. Bach’s famous Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, chosen as it uses 10 out of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale. This is no overblown Busoni-esque arrangement, but takes the counterpoint-ready notes to create among other things a slowly evolving passacaglia on which variations in canon are developed. This is another vast and craggily inspiring piece and a virtuoso tour de force for the pianist, powerfully rewarding but hard-won through a genuine thicket of dense material, the final minutes releasing us from the turmoil of life with the Dies Irae.

Primordial Fantasy evokes in its title “the violent atmospheric conditions and primordial ‘soup’ through to exist at Earth’s beginning”, and there is certainly plenty of violence in the opening. This is a fascinating ‘spot the quote’ piece, with all kinds of references and citations flying around. It’s certainly a spectacular concert work and cleverly pieced together, but to my mind not the strongest piece in this programme. The strings struggle against piano, winds and percussion and would be better substituted for more winds, and the whole thing sounds a bit too ‘easy’ in its segmented procession.

With very fine recordings and superb performances of some strikingly effective and at times inspiringly powerful work, this is a release which has plenty going for it. David Crumb is clearly a composer from whom we should, indeed must hear more.

Dominy Clements


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