GEORGE CRUMB: The River of Life (premiere recording); Unto the Hills (premiere complete version) – Ann Crumb, soprano/ Orchestra 2001/ James Freeman, conductor – Bridge

by | Apr 17, 2007 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

GEORGE CRUMB: The River of Life (premiere recording); Unto the Hills (premiere complete version) – Ann Crumb, soprano/ Orchestra 2001/ James Freeman, conductor – Bridge 9218 A/B (2 discs), 43:02 & 40:20 ***:

Ever since I first heard Vox Balanae and Night of the Four Moons on an old Columbia LP back in the 70s, I have been an unabashed fan of George Crumb. At a time when the avant-garde was seemingly out of control, Crumb arrived on the scene with a music so delicate and evocative, so chillingly refined and dramatically apt as to put many of the pretenders of that bygone era to shame. With Ancient Voices of Children, his place in history was assured. Even though his output is comparatively small, the quality remains high, and his voice is as unique as American music has ever experienced.

Even his scores are works of art, done in a magnificent color scheme that would grace the walls of many homes. But lucky for us they more often adorn the music stands of concert halls instead. When I had the chance to meet the composer at the North Carolina School of the Arts around 1974, I was astounded at his humility, and he obviously felt out of place among so much adulation.

Bridge is now 10 volumes into their Crumb edition, and it is likely to stand as a milestone of recorded music. While I cannot say that some of the releases have the almost mystical attraction that the original Nonesuch albums had (and who can ever top Jan DeGaetani?), the performances have been first rate. And so they are here, though duty binds me to report that this release is not what it could have been. The River of Life and Unto the Hills are the first and third volumes of Crumb’s American Songbook, essentially his take on some of the great classic tunes of Americana. Unto the Hills is actually the first written, but Crumb has revised it to its final form in this recording. 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. When Crumb deals with his own “melodies”, set so memorably to the poetry of Garcia Lorca, for instance, the world is entirely his; here the world of folklore-like Americana feels alien. Though Crumb claims that this work is a part of his “Ivesian thing” (and there are some striking similarities between the two men’s lives and work), Ives use of such material feels far more natural and integrated than what Crumb does with some of these same melodies.

Yet Crumb being Crumb, there is genius aplenty, and wholesale dismissal of the American Songbook is out of the question, and many will find much to enjoy. Unfortunately another downside of this recording is the singing of Ann Crumb, the composer’s daughter. She is a noted singer in her own right, gracing the worlds of classical, jazz, and Broadway. The problem here is that there songs must be presented with a plaintive, simple, elegantly stillborn manner to be really effective, and Ms. Crumb uses bent notes and other pop-like inflections that seem totally out of place, not unlike the feeling one gets when some pop star jazzes up the National Anthem at a sporting event. It is a mixing of worlds that to me simply does not add up, and it hindered my enjoyment of the pieces.

But otherwise the performances are first rate, the percussion orchestra and amplified piano caught to perfection in Bridge’s clear recording. For Crumb fans, a must—for others, I would suggest starting with any of the previously mentioned works either in the Bridge series, or still available in the older recordings.

— Steven Ritter

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