George Crumb’s Vol. 18 Fantastic Music!

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CRUMB: The Yellow Moon of Andaluza (Spanish Songbook III). Yesteryear / Tony Arnold, sop; Marcantonio Barone, pn; add David Nelson, William Kerrigan, perc on 2nd work / Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik / Marcantonio Barone, on / Celestial Mechanics / Quattro Mani ; Bernie Brink, third pn/ Bridge 9476

Fifty-four years after he startled the music world with his Night Music I and 47 years after his surprise success with Ancient Voices of Children, George Crumb is still active and inventive. This CD encompasses works composed between 1979 (Celestial Mechanics) and 2012 (Spanish Songbook III), although this performance of the former contains a new ending that he also wrote in 2012. On this album he is fortunate to have as performers the immensely gifted soprano Tony Arnold, for whom he wrote Yesteryear (2005, revised 2013) as well as the superb pianist Marcantonio Barone, whose playing with violinist Barbara Govatos created the most exciting modern recording of the Beethoven Violin Sonatas, and the equally skilled piano duo Quattro Mani, whose work I’ve had occasion to praise in the past.

As it turns out, The Yellow Moon of Andaluza, subtitled Spanish Songbook III, has a remarkably lyrical vocal line, reminiscent to my mind of Richard Rodney Bennett’s Tom O’Bedlam except not so aggressive in certain passages. Arnold’s voice, though exceptionally lovely and with both outstanding diction and flawless technical control (listen to her sing those coloratura runs!), is not particularly powerful, thus this was a good idea. As usual with Crumb, the pianist is required to really “play the piano” and not just the keyboard: plucked strings, bangs on the frame, using a wood block on the metal crossbeam and some sort of whining probably created by teasing the inner strings with the fingers, all contribute to the overall effect. At one point Arnold is asked to whisper the lyrics while Barone plays those soft, whining strings. Crumb’s music always sounds to me as if it descended from outer space, but that is not a criticism. It’s so soundly constructed that despite the sound effects you can follow every phrase perfectly; it’s just “out there” in a way that other composers simply aren’t.

Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik, literal translation A Little Midnight Music, is that rarity, a classical piece based on a jazz classic that isn’t jazz-inflected rhythmically. Here the basis of Crumb’s piece is Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight (so for all of you jazz people out there who think that no classical musicians appreciate Monk because of his splayed-fingers playing technique, you’re wrong…his songs are musical classics in their own right), and Crumb plays with the theme as Beethoven did with Diabelli’s cornball little waltz, only much more intricately and with modern harmonies. The pianist scurries up and down the upper range with the right hand, creating strange arabesques of sound while the left hand thrown in occasional crushed chords. Among the highlights of this piece are the “nightmarish distortions” of the theme in the fifth piece (“Incantation”) and a deliberate parody of Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk in the sixth. This is surely one of Crumb’s most imaginative pieces, and I applaud him for having the courage to write a serious piece based on one of jazz’s finest composers. In the last-named, Crumb not only includes Debussy’s quotation of the opening notes of Tristan und Isolde but also throws in the opening of Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel! Crumb comes closest to jazz in the next segment, titled “Blues in the Night,” which Barone plays with an excellent feel for jazz rhythm. A “Cadenza With Tolling Bells” follows, in which the pianist shouts out each “stroke of midnight” in Italian, then finally “Midnight Transformation” in which Monk’s tune returns in its fuller form (it is played virtually complete, without variation, in the opening section in the piano’s high range), with the music floating dreamily and ethereally into the night with soft knocks on the piano frame. What a great piece!

Next is one of Crumb’s better-known pieces (it’s difficult to say that anything George Crumb writes is “popular,” other than Ancient Voices which sold nearly a half-million copies), Celestial Mechanics, played here by the very gifted piano duo Quattro Mani (Steven Beck and Susan Grace) with Bernie Brink chipping in as third pianist in two passages. This is much more rhythmic that most of Crumb’s music, creating in fact an almost moto perpetuo in the opening piece, “Alpha Centauri.” Interestingly, Quattro Mani almost sounds as if they’re swinging it a little in one spot. Indeed, they also sound rather jazzy in the plucked piece that follows, “Beta Cygni.” I wonder if this duo has had some jazz-playing experience? In any case, Quattro Mani sounds as if they’ve having fun playing the music, and this enthusiasm carries over to the listener. This is even true in those passages where they are asked to drum on the low piano strings, followed by harpsichord-like plectra effects. The 2012 revision of the work concerns only the last passage of the final piece, “Delta Orionis,” where Crumb switched from a highly ornate, intricate piece to a “Bell piece processional” that is “transfigured, slow, mysterious,” and this is what we hear on this recording. The liner notes say he was inspired by the final pages of the last movement of Beethoven’s final piano sonata, Op. 111, and I like that. I’ve always felt this was one of Beethoven’s greatest and most cosmic inspirations. Crumb may not have had this in mind, but it also echoes the final section of Holst’s “Neptune, the Mystic” from The Planets.

The CD closes out with the 11-minute Yesteryear, A Vocalise for Mezzo-Soprano, Amplified Piano and Percussion, sung to perfection by Arnold. It absolutely amazed me how she was able to maintain a perfectly rounded tone in all ranges as she wove her way through the score, even in those sections that called for sotto voce chromatics or microtonal effects. This is Golden-Age singing in a completely modern piece that sounds centered around E-flat minor. At one point the rhythm almost sounds “jungle-like” in the way that many of those popular “exotica” pieces of the 1950s were. Crumb creates some remarkable sounds with his percussionists, who in turn play bass drum, Chinese gong, woodblocks, spring coil drums, bowed flexitone, Indian ankle bells, wind chimes, crotales and Japanese temple bells! The composer describes it as a piece in which “the singer is vainly searching for her lost youth and beauty and laments their inevitable erosion by the relentless passage of time,” but in a sense Arnold’s incredibly beautiful voice negates this as it retains its beauty throughout.

The two vocal works and the final section of Celestial Mechanics receive their world premiere recordings on this disc. This is must-get for Crumb fanciers, as well as for devotees of Tony Arnold.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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