GEORGE CRUMB: Eleven Echoes of Autumn; The Sleeper; Vox Balaenae; Five Pieces for Piano; Dream Sequence – International Contemporary Ensemble/ Jamie Van Eyck, mezzo-soprano – Bridge 9261, 70:52 ****1/2 [Distr. by Albany]:
This is the twelfth volume of what will eventually become a legendary edition in my opinion, sterling performances for the most part of the works of that true maverick–and one whose work has proved far more enduring than his avant-garde beginnings might have suggested–George Crumb. I must confess that I am however, a little disappointed. In my previous review of this series where Night of the Four Moons was featured, I expressed hope that Bridge would do with Vox Balaenae what they did there, and that is to give us the licensed version from Sony of that original “Modern American Composers” series performance that was the flip side of Night of the Four Moons. To me, that performance has never been equaled, and as of yet I have not seen it silvered, and probably won’t unless some thoroughly enlightened entrepreneurial spirit should decide to release it.
So I should probably start with Voice of the Whale, maybe my favorite Crumb piece and definitely one of his most popular. By and large it is given an excellent reading here, though the sound should have been lowered a bit as the microphoned instruments were meant to pick up the subtleties of sound and not make things louder as they are here–turn down you volume a little when you get to this one. And I think that the dramatic effects in this piece are not as carefully drawn as the Sony (Columbia) issue of so many years ago. But the playing is excellent, and one cannot complain too much–this is a seminal and mandatory work that is one of the foundations of modern music, and a wonderfully moving and scintillating piece at that, not to be missed.
The rest of the disc is also packed with some feverishly influential Crumb standards. Eleven Echoes of Autumn may be said to be a precursor to his Pulitzer Prize-winning Echoes of Time and the River (1967), eleven meditations of exquisite sound coloration. The Sleeper is a short song based on Poe’s poem of the same title written for Jan DeGaetani and Gilbert Kalish (my goodness, the things that pair brought us!), quiet, haunting, and descriptive. Five Pieces for Piano was originally intended for pianist David Burge, and is maybe the first to make extended use of the prepared piano–no one ever did it like Crumb, and to such musical effect (pace, Cage fans), especially exploiting the techniques of actually playing the inside of the piano without using undue artifices.
Finally, Dream Sequence (Images II) is linked with Black Angels, the composer’s famous 1970 work for electric string quartet (and recorded memorably on Nonesuch with the Kronos Quartet). The work is highly atmospheric, and even aleatory to a certain extent as some choices are allowed the performers in terms of timing and following their parts around a notated circle (Crumb’s scores, in stunning calligraphy and color, are works of art themselves), and the composer even suggested that a certain theatrical element might be appropriate, such as placing the players behind a silk screen in order to show only a profile.
Do I recommend this?–you bet! I confess to a certain degree of Crumb-adulation, so take it with a grain of salt, but for those willing with open ears to learn to listen in a different way, there is some marvelous music on this disc and in this series that simply must be heard. Performances are all uniformly fine, the series standard easily maintained.
— Steven Ritter