GEORGE CRUMB: A Journey Beyond Time (American Songbook 2); The Winds of Destiny (American Songbook 4) – Barbara Ann Martin, soprano/ Orchestra 2001/ James Freeman, conductor – Bridge 9725A/B (2 CDs), 82:27 **** [Distr. by Albany]:
I expressed a little hesitancy in my review of George Crumb’s American Songbooks 1 and 3. I said then “The difficulty I have with these works is primarily the stark contrast between the simplicity of these melodies, often given completely intact, and the sound world of Crumb that hovers in and sometimes injects itself violently into this music.” Moving on to volumes 2 and 4 in this series (there are six altogether, making this essentially the longest song-cycle in history) I think the criticism still stands as the premiere weakness in the cycle. When Crumb creates his own melodies or fragments, the material is completely at this mercy of his ruthlessly creative vision, and one of the great surprises of any Crumb work is not knowing where that vision will take us, sometimes places of horror, sometimes places of exquisite, almost overwhelming beauty. In this music (with A Journey Beyond Time dealing with Afro-American spirituals and The Winds of Destiny speaking of Civil War songs, folk songs, and spirituals) Crumb states his intention of being absolutely faithful to the unadulterated presentation of the songs in their pristine form, and so as a result has in effect handicapped himself in terms of creative imagination. He must now turn his role from that of composer to almost that of “arranger” instead, and while the results may be easier—especially for newcomers—to swallow, a lot of what makes Crumb Crumb is dissolved in the mélange.
However, as in my previous review, I find it impossible to dismiss this music out of hand, even if I do not believe that this is what the composer will be remembered for. There are indeed some stunningly effective moments in this series, some astonishingly gorgeous. Take for instance the very last song in book 4, “Shenandoah”. Yes, it’s the melody we all know and love, but Crumb sets it in a mystical, delicately shimmering glow of light percussion that one can only stand cemented in place until the last sound fades out. “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” places us on a deserted battlefield after the fight is over, and the reflection on what has happened is devastating. And from book 2, “Joshua Fit de Battle ob Jerico” has never been experienced in such a visceral and moving manner.
When Bridge finishes these six books it will be easier to assess them as a whole. As it stands, these singer, piano, and four percussionists pieces will undoubtedly make a mark in the lieder world when all is said and done. Keep in mind that when you hear these you are listening to over 100 percussion instruments that feature items as Chinese opera gongs, temple gongs, Balinese gamelan gongs, Japanese temple bells, Indian camel and ankle bells, Thai wooden buffalo bells, sleigh bells, Tibetan prayer stones, Vietnamese frogs, cricket’s voice, drums, rattles, etc.—an amazing conglomeration. Barbara Ann Martin has the full measure of these pieces and sings accordingly, with real feeling and love for this music. The sound is vivid and present, and the notes all one could ask for. Keep ‘em coming, Bridge.
— Steven Ritter