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Wednesday, March 01, 2006
George Crumb
George Crumb A Haunted Landscape; Echoes of Time and the River; Star-Child
Susan Narucki, soprano; Joseph Alessi, trombone; Warsaw Boy’s Choir; Warsaw Philharmonic Choir; George Crumb, Paul Cesarczyk, bell ringers; Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Conlin, conductor
Bridge 9174

George Crumb Ancient Voices of Children; Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik; Madrigals, Books I-IV
Tony Arnold, soprano; Justin Murray, boy soprano; Rachel Rudich, flutes; Kathryn Dupuy Cooper, oboe; David Starobin, mandolin; Dale Stuckenbruck, musical saw; Courtney Hershey Bress, Beverly Wesner-Hoehn, harp; Emanuele Arciuli, Susan Grace, piano; John Kinzie, Mark Foster, William Hill, David Colson, percussion; Stephen Tramontozzi, contrabass; David Colson, conductor
Bridge 9170

The sound world brought into being by the music of George Crumb is a personal one, elusive and allusive. Fugitive melodic lines dot the soundscape, appearing and reappearing, often as echoes, as in a valley in West Virginia, where the composer grew up. References to other music abound, either as direct quotation or in stylistic affinity. Crumb’s rhythms are now rhapsodic and free, now ritualistic and repetitive. His harmony is expansively tonal, with harsh dissonances at dramatic and expressive junctures in the music.

And then there are the “effects”. A soprano sings into a piano with its pedal depressed, producing an aura of shimmering sympathetic vibrations. A bow is drawn across a vibraphone bar, generating a ghostly ring. A harmonic glissando on the cello releases the song of seagulls. Crumb is known for his use of these extended performances techniques that stretch the timbral identities of instruments and of performance itself. Sometimes, the unusual movements required to produce the sounds Crumb wants add to the ritualistic aspect of live performances.

Crumb’s intimate style, so often perching on the ledge between what is audible and what is felt, would seem ill-suited for that most public of ensembles (besides the wind band), the symphony orchestra. Yet it was with his first mature orchestral work, Echoes of Time and the River (1968), that Crumb made his initial impact. Echoes of Time and the River is the first piece by the composer to incorporate all of the aspects listed above, and to fully integrate them into a complete musical statement. The performance here by the Warsaw Philharmonic led by Thomas Conlin, is revelatory. The revelation is in the extent Crumb is able to transfer his musical/poetic thought into the orchestral medium, so that the medium bends to his needs, not the other way around, which is so often the case with composers whose style is not traditionally “orchestral”.

The ritual, the effects, and the intimacy are given here on a grand stage, as they do in the other works on the orchestral disc, A Haunted Landscape and Star-Child. The performances, again by the Warsaw Philharmonic and Thomas Conlin, are top-notch, and soprano Susan Narwicki is a commanding, rich-voiced presence.

Crumb is probably best known for the cycle of works he composed in the 1960s on the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca. The Spaniard's hauntingly imagistic poetry was a perfect fit for the mature Crumb. In fact, there may be a chicken/egg relationship between Crumb’s development as a sound-painter and his reading of Lorca. In this series of remarkable works, Crumb explored Lorca’s world and made it very much his own.

The four books of Madrigals (1965, 1969) are atomistic, precise settings of Lorca fragments. Listening to them as a single work, one can hear Crumb’s voice maturing and becoming more assured. The climax of this development is Ancient Voices of Children (1970), a setting of larger pieces of Lorca on a larger musical canvas. The Bridge recording is vivid and exciting. Soprano Tony Arnold gives a warm and compelling reading of both Ancient Voices and the Madrigals, and boy soprano Justin Murray is excellent in Ancient Voices, too.

The disc is rounded off by Emmanuel Arciuli’s sensitive and colorful reading of the solo piano piece, Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik (A Little Midnight Music), Crumb’s playful and poetic “Ruminations on ‘Round Midnight by Thelonius Monk”. It is a an indication of the composer’s mastery of his craft that he is able to apply a similar sensibility to this very different material and produce music that is true to both himself and to the spirit of the Monk standard.

This disc is as fine an introduction to the work of this important composer as I can imagine.


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