CRUMB: Metamorphoses, Books I & II / Marcantonio Barone, pno / Bridge 9551
George Crumb is our modern-day Energizer Bunny of composers. At age 92—and how about this for coincidence, today is his 92nd birthday!—he just keeps writing his amazing celestial music, which he has been doing since the 1960s. From the era of Hippies to the era of Drippies, Crumb is a constant source of amazement and admiration, and this new release includes his most recent composition, Book II of his Metamorphoses, which he himself has likened to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
Book I received an excellent performance from Margaret Leng Tan on Mode 303, but of course Book II wasn’t finished by that time. Here we have both books played by Marcantonio Barone, a pianist who Crumb admires very much and who recorded, several years ago, what I and other critics consider to be the very best performances of the Beethoven Violin Sonatas with Barbara Govatos (Bridge 9389A/D).
For those keeping score at home, here is the complete list of paintings musically portrayed by Crumb in both Books:
Black Prince (Paul Klee, 1927)
Goldfish (Paul Klee, 1925)
Crows Over the Wheatfield (Vincent van Gogh, 1890)
The Fiddler (Marc Chagall, 1912/13)*
Nocturne: Blue and Gold (James McNeill Whistler, 1872)*
Perilous Night (Jasper Johns, 1990)
Clowns at Night (Marc Chagall, 1957)*
Contes barbares (Paul Gaughin, 1902)
The Persistence of Memory (Salvador Dali, 1931)*
The Blue Rider (Wassily Kandinsky, 1903)*
Ancient Sound, Abstract on Black (Paul Klee, 1925)
Landscape with Yellow Birds (Paul Klee, 1923)
Christina’s World (Andrew Wyeth, 1948)*
Purple Haze (Simon Dinnerstein, 1991)
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (Gustav Klimt, 1907)
Spirit of the Dead Watcing (Paul Gaughin, 1892)
Guernica (Pablo Picasso, 1937)*
From the Faraway, Nearby (Georgia O’Keeffe, 1937)*
Easter (Marc Chagall, 1968)
Starry Night (Vincent van Gogh, 1889)*
As you can see, nearly all of the artists are very well-known names, Simon Dinnerstein being less known than the others, and there are at least nine of these paintings are iconic (asterisks in the list above). Barone’s recording of Book I was in fact previously issued by Bridge in June of last year, an album filled out with the Ten Fantasy Pieces. At that time, I compared his performances to those of Margaret Leng Tan on Mode 303, commenting that not only were Barone’s performances faster than Tan’s, sometimes by just a few seconds but a full minute longer in The Persistence of Memory, but that his instrument is recorded in a much closer acoustic, which makes the music sound a bit edgier throughout. There are pluses and minuses to this, the biggest advantage being that Barone’s tauter phrasing and brisker tempi bring out the structure of the music better, the biggest disadvantage being that there is a loss of atmosphere in the recording, and atmosphere is often what Crumb is all about. Yet the composer himself supervised Barone’s recording session, thus I must assume that he got exactly what he wanted.
All things considered, however, Barone’s approach probably matches Crumb’s mental images of these paintings better, since so many of them have dark themes. By and large, these are not happy paintings, Chagall being the rare exception. In fact, Crumb considers Gaughin’s Spirit of the Dead Watching to be one the artist’s most disturbing images, and of course we know that Christina’s World, Guernica and even Starry Night are not the kind of images that advertisers would want to use to promote their products. Even so, there are many moments in his performances of Book II where Barone pulls back a little on his strong approach, which I feel gives a better balance, at least to my ears and in this context, than his playing in Book I.
Not that Crumb’s music is consistently celestial in feeling…not at all, and this may be due to the fact that the paintings Crumb portrays musically in Book II are even more images of pain, fear or death than in Book I. Yet perhaps ironically, the music is often quieter—at least as Barone played and recorded it—and certainly closer to minor modes or keys. In Christina’s World, for instance, Crumb has the performer play a series of ominous-sounding ostinato notes in the left hand while the right eerily plucks the inner strings of the piano, later reducing the volume even further, almost to a whisper, as the right hand plays s slow series of soft notes while still occasionally, but much more quietly, plucking the inner strings. Purple Haze opens very slowly, and much to my surprise, the music has an almost bluesy rhythmic feel to it, something you don’t normally expect from Crumb. There is also a reference here to Jimi Hendrix’ piece of the same title. Only in Guernica is the music loud, explosive and a bit terrifying, as you might expect; here, Crumb even uses an ostinato marching beat, something exceptionally rare for him, before the music slowly trails off in tempo and volume, suggesting a field of death in the wake of the battle.
Chagall’s Easter is in a rare quick tempo and louder volume, but since this painting isn’t really that much cheerier than most of the others, the music also has its dark side—in fact, more overtly menacing than Christine’s World or Purple Haze. At one point in this piece, Crumb sets of soft, slow trilling figures in the right hand against almost violently-attacked bass notes in the left. By contrast, Van Gogh’s Starry Night is soft and abstract, vintage Crumb, suggesting the off-and-on twinkling of stars. Crumb has described it as “slowly pulsating; desireless, with infinite calm.” It’s a perfect, quintessentially Crumb-like ending to his musical art gallery, and Barone plays it with a perfect lightness of touch.
I think that these performances of the Book II pieces, in particular, are going to be very hard for other pianists to equal, let alone surpass. There’s just something about the way Barone plays them that stays with you long after the record is finished. If you admire Crumb’s music as much as I do, this is a must-have recording.
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
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