The Heare Ensemble Plays Crumb

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CRUMB: Vox Balaenae. PRANGCHAROEN: Bencharong. GARROP: Silver Dagger. PANN: Melodies for Robert / Heare Ensemble: Jennie Oh Brown, fl; Jennifer Blyth, pno; Kurt Fowler, cel / Innova 040

I’ve said many times that I don’t believe that modern music, by and large, really has a “performing style,” particularly not one that can be played around with in different ways as the older music can. One reason is that modern composers are even more precise in what they want in their compositions; another is that they’re not performed enough for musicians to be comfortable enough with them to have an alternate viewpoint on how they should sound. It took us nearly 80 years to have a performing style for certain works of Scriabin, Stravinsky and Bartók. Heaven knows how much longer it will take us to have a different “take” on performing composers like George Crumb.

Crumb’s Vox Balaenae is a perfect case in point. I have a recording of it on Dux by flautist Jan Krzeszowiec, pianist Małgorzata Zarębińska and cellist Marcin Misiak, and even a side-by-side comparison with this performance reveals very little difference between them in terms of phrasing or accents except one. This new recording is considerably slower than the one on Dux. Within these slower tempi I heard but one thing that made more of an impact, and that was a slightly greater energy in the loud passages. Perhaps, for some listeners, the slower pace also lets them absorb the music more easily, as in the second section, “Variations of Sea-Time,” where the high whines on the cello linger a bit longer in the mind. On the other hand, this slower pace tends to distend the music so that its form is not as easily discernible. Of course, this will be a matter of personal taste for listeners. From a purely technical standpoint, this recording is also much more realistically recorded, with the instruments a bit closer to the microphones, which also helps increase its impact. It’s a matter of personal taste. As a generalization, I can say that had I not already owned the Dux recording I would certainly like this one, since, as I say, within the slower tempi there are no real differences (to my ears) in phrasing, so that the music makes its intended point. This may seem a bit cerebral and, to some, not a “real” review of this performance, but that is how I hear it so that is all I can report on.

Since Vox Balaenae is a fairly short work—even in this slower performance, it only runs about 23 minutes—the choice of filler material then comes into play. The Dux recording combines it with other works by Crumb: the Three Early Songs and Celestial Mechanics. This one combines it with three works by other composers previously unknown to me, Narong Prangcharoen’s Bencharong, Stacy Garrop’s Silver Dagger and Carter Pann’s Melodies for Robert.

The liner notes tell us that the Thai word Bencharong describes the decoration of Thai porcelain which generally consists of five colors, red, blue, yellow, white and black. Prangcharoen states that in the five pieces that make up his suite he has attempted to describe these five colors. I really liked this music: though written in the prescribed modern “edgy” style, Prangcharoen at least has a clear idea of musical direction and structure. But the pieces are very short, all of them being under two minutes in length and two of them, Red and Black, coming in under 1:20. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting suite, one worth hearing and admiring the composer’s cleverness. It is also played quite expressively by the Heare Ensemble, particularly the second movement (“Blue”) which has great feeling.

Silver Dagger, as it turns out, is a fairly moody piece played by the trio which lasts about five minutes. It struck me as being nice modern music in an ambient style that seemed to have more effects than substance. The notes tell us that this was adapted from an Appalachian folk song. It’s a nice filler piece but not much more than that.

Pann’s Melodies for Robert purportedly “contemplates an individual’s life of courage and love,” referring to Dr. Robert Vincent Jones who, originally a flautist, became an American war hero and then later took up a career as a physician and a pilot. The music is tonal in the archetypal “American” style passed down to us from Copland and Thomson. It’s fairly well written but, for my taste, too romantic in character to appeal. Perhaps you will feel differently.

So there you have it. A mixed review, with the Crumb and Prangcharoen works being particular standouts and all of the performances very fine.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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