CRUMB: Voices from the Morning of the Earth; An Idyll for the Misbegotten; The Sleeper – Ann Crumb, sop./Randall Scarlata, bar./ instr. soloists/ Orchestra 2001 /James Freeman – Bridge

by | Jul 21, 2015 | Classical CD Reviews

GEORGE CRUMB: Voices from the Morning of the Earth; An Idyll for the Misbegotten; The Sleeper – Ann Crumb, sop./Randall Scarlata, bar./ instrumental soloists/ Orchestra 2001 /James Freeman – Bridge 9445, 66:29 (Distr. by Albany) (6/01/15) ***1/2:

I freely admit that George Crumb is one of my favorite American composers of all time, going back to a live performance of his Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos IV) after which I was determined to hear more. Therefore, I think that the dedication of Bridge Records and David Starobin to recording all of his music in what this release makes seventeen volumes so far is a splendid idea.

The landmark piece on this release (The George Crumb Edition, Volume 17) is his Voices from the Morning of the Earth (American Songbook VI.) The subtitle somewhat tells you everything you need to know about the nature of this fascinating work and it does help if you have heard other entries in his turn-of-the-century collection of traditional American folk songs and ballads given Crumb’s trademark eerie orchestrations and harmonies that twist and turn against familiar melodies.

All of the “Songbook” series was written with Crumb’s talented soprano daughter, Ann Crumb, in mind. Her voice, just like those of Dawn Upshaw and Jan de Gaetani before her, has a very pleasant, clear, “folksy” timbre that plays well against her father’s tinkling metallic percussion, gong and cymbal bursts that come out of nowhere and brass work that paints a near nightmarish fabric in spots. Ann Crumb is joined in some of the songs by similarly talented baritone Randall Scarlatta.

George Crumb has always had a particularly refined talent for finding and utilizing the “tone” behind a text. His mid-60’s emblematic song cycles based on poetry by Federico Garcia Lorca are a perfect example. This wonderful cycle is at its most effective when the texts are very familiar and already possess an idiomatic ‘feel’ that Crumb is not reticent to heighten and take in a new, often surreal directions. Two very clear examples, to me, are what he does to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”  This is a very solid and characteristically ‘Crumb-like’ work that I was very glad to hear.

The short stand-alone song, The Sleeper, was also expectedly macabre and somewhat Gothic; based on a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. The use of piano chords with some bell-like partials built into the chords to intentionally sound like church bells against text like “The lady sleeps …. Soft may the worms about her creep” certainly gives us the idea.

The last work here is not vocal but is a chamber piece for amplified flute and percussion from 1986, Idyll for the Misbegotten. In this work, talented solo flutist Rachel Rudich is playing some sinewy, twisted riffs taken from the fabric of Debussy’s well-known Syrinx against some quite mysterious percussion parts; which showcase performers William Kerrigan, David Nelson, Susan Jones and Angela Zator Nelson quite well. Crumb says this work was also inspired by his awareness of man’s gradual disconnection from the natural world and the use of flute and percussion is intentionally a use of very old; very ‘indigenous’ timbres.

George Crumb remains a very important and unique voice in American music. His style, like a few others, is so unique and “predictable” (in all the best ways of the term) that if you like it, as I deeply do, this new edition is a “must.”  By all accounts he is also a very quiet and unassuming man with a great deal of talent comfortable in his realm; therefore I am a huge supporter. I recommend this highly to other fans of his music and I think some of the younger generation portending to know about contemporary music should know Crumb’s work.

—Daniel Coombs

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