Barone Plays Crumb’s “Metamorphoses” Book I

cover BCD9535

CRUMB: Metamorphoses, Book I / Marcantonio Barone, pno / Bridge BCD9535

Decisions, decisions. Back in June of 2018, I reviewed pianist Margaret Leng Tan’s recording of this same work. Not only had Tan played the Metamorphoses for Crumb (there’s a photo of them together on the back cover of the album), but this was its world premiere recording. I raved about both the music and Tan’s performances, and still think them very, very good.

Here we have pianist Marcantonio Barone, who I am most familiar with through his sensational Bridge recording of the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas with Barbara Govatos on Bridge 9389A/D, which I personally consider to be the greatest integral set of these works ever recorded, playing the same Book I of Metamorphoses—in this case, at a recording session supervised by the composer. Not only are the tempi all faster in his performance—sometimes by a few seconds and sometimes, as in the case of The Persistence of Memory, by a full minute—but the performances “sound” quite different. Though both artists use a prepared piano, Tan’s performances have a much greater ambience about them, They are more opaque in sound and more atmospheric in addition to being a bit slower. Barone, you might say, gives us a very wide-awake George Crumb.

Much of this, I think, is as much due to the microphone placement as it is to the artist’s approach to the score. Yet there are benefits to Barone’s approach as well. In his presentation of Black Prince, for instance, Barone gives us a much more menacing feel. He also reveals the structure of the work much more because of his tauter phrasing and brisker tempi. His approach must have received the composer’s blessing since he was there in the studio. But I think it all comes down to one’s perception of Crumb. Throughout my half-century of listening to him, starting with Jan de Gaetani’s recording of Ancient Voices of Children back in 1971, I have personally always felt that the atmosphere of any performance of Crumb’s music must be a vital part of it.

Now, had I heard this recording first, or if this were the only recording of it I’ve heard, I would surely praise it without reservation. Nothing is really amiss in this performance except for a bit less atmosphere in several of the pieces. I also realize that what I am saying runs counter to the way I feel about most classical music performances I review, where I want to hear emotionally energized and structural performances, but Crumb has always been a special case for me. Yes, I do want feeling in performances of his music: for me, that is a prerequisite of any music I listen to. But a certain opaque quality is as important in Crumb as it is in the music of Debussy. Koechlin or even some of Ligeti. Sometimes, atmosphere does count for something.

Yet I admit that I found Barone’s livelier approach to The Fiddler, and several other tracks on this album, quite excellent. Since Crumb apparently approved of both pianists, I guess I’d have to ask him which recording he likes best, and I doubt that he’ll criticize this one since it is part of a massive (19 CDs and counting) “George Crumb Edition” on Bridge. But if one has already heard the Tan performance, it certainly gives one pause to reflect on the sometimes astonishing differences between these two different interpretations.

Strictly as a purchase, the Tan disc is the better bargain. All the Barone CD includes is the Metamorphoses, while Tan’s recording includes performances of Crumb’s very early (1962) Five Pieces for Piano, which she also plays very well. If, however, you’d like an alternate recording of this work that is quite different, you might want the Barone as well. He is clearly a fine artist who, though his playing here, makes the music sound quite different, gives us a valid approach.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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