New CD of Crumb’s Piano Music

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CRUMB: Metamorphoses, Book 1. 5 Pieces for Piano / Margaret Leng Tan, pno / Mode 303 (*live: Donaueschingen, 2017)

This CD start out with George Crumb’s most recent piano cycle, the Metamorphoses, but closes with his earliest, the 5 Pieces for Piano from 1962. Crumb composed Metamorphoses specifically for Margaret Leng Tan because she has long been a champion of his work; written in 2015, this recording is of the German premiere of the piece at the Donaueschingen Festival in 2017. Like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, each of its segments (10 in all) was inspired by a painting, the most famous of which is Salvador Dali’s famous “melting clocks” picture from 1931, The Persistence of Memory. The others are Paul Klee’s Black Prince and The Goldfish, van Gogh’s Wheatfield With Crows (reproduced on the album’s cover), Marc Chagall’s The Fiddler, Whistler’s Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Southampton Water, Jasper Johns’ Perilous Night, Chagall’s Clowns at Night, Gaughin’s Contes Barbares and Wassily Kandinsky’s The Blue Rider.

But of course, this is George Crumb and not Modest Mussorgsky, thus the music stretches the limits of both the imagination and the performer. In Wheatfield With Crows, for instance, the performer is called on to simulate the calling of crows Interestingly, however, the music is more formally structured than usual for Crumb, and although multi-tonal its threads of melodic fragments are not terribly difficult for the ear to follow. Perhaps his intent to depict the various paintings led him to write music that was, well, descriptive rather than too far out to relate to the visuals. Mind you, I’m not saying that it’s easy or tuneful, only that the trained musical ear can get into its underlying structure with a certain degree of grounding. In The Fiddler, for instance, Crumb actually does simulate a sort of folk tune that could be played on a fiddle, one of the most lyrical things he has ever written. Likewise, Nocturne: Blue and Gold is the most impressionistic piece. If you view the paintings as you listen, you’ll be amazed at how well Crumb captured the essence of each. In the haunting Clowns at Night, Tan is called upon to play a toy piano with one hand and the bass line on the normal piano while making strange howling sounds.

Though Nocturne may be the most impressionistic piece in the set, the music depicting Dali’s Persistence of Memory is the most abstract, the most like the George Crumb most listeners know from such works as Ancient Voices of Children, although near the end the performer first sings and then plays a melody that sounds for all the world like Amazing Grace! Not surprisingly, his depiction of Kandinsky’s The Blue Rider is the most rhythmic, simulating the galloping horseman via a rather syncopated running bass line, to which crushed chords are added as it goes along. Eventually, the music goes into a long crescendo with pounded treble notes and menacing bass chords, eventually returning to the bass line alone as it rushes towards the finish line (and a crashing chord to end it). For those listeners who don’t consider Crumb a great composer, I think this suite will be an ear-opener. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece in every respect.

The 5 Pieces for Piano already show Crumb as an individualist, even at this early stage making the pianist play the insides of the instrument. It is, however, much more abstract than the Metapmorphoses, which you would expect in a work less tied to visuals. Although a difficult piece, both in terms of the technique it demands of the player and the listening aspect, it is worth your effort to absorb and understand it.

This is clearly an outstanding album, particularly for the Metamorphoses.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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3 thoughts on “New CD of Crumb’s Piano Music

  1. Just to clarify: This live CD recording is from the German premiere performance at Donaueschinger Musiktage on October 21, 2017. The world premiere took place at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC on May 7, 2017.

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