Crumb’s Spanish, American Songs Make CD Debuts

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American composer George Crumb, soon to turn 85, continues to pursue his muse.
The newest recording of works by American composer George Crumb, soon to turn 85, has been released by Bridge.

George Crumb: Voices From the Heartland (American Songbook VII), Sun and Shadow (Spanish Songbook II). Ann Crumb (soprano), Patrick Mason (baritone), Marcantonio Barone (amplified piano), Orchestra 2001, James Freeman (conductor). Bridge 9413.

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW – The tenacious Bridge label set out many years ago to record the complete works of George Crumb – who turns 85 in October – and this unique series has now spawned 16 volumes, including a DVD. Volume 16 couples a pair of song cycles from two long-term projects – the last entry (No. 7) in Crumb’s American Songbooks series and the second installment in the Spanish Songbook collection, if you’re keeping score. Both are first recordings.

Crumb CD 350Lots of composers have paid homage to Federico García Lorca over the last 70 years – before long, it seems, his words will be set almost as many times as those of Shakespeare. For Crumb, Sun and Shadow (2009) is his eleventh go at the Spanish poet, overall. He does so in inimitable fashion; his trademark atmosphere of mysterious, uneasy stasis pervades the music even at his wildest, utilizing strummed piano strings and the extremes of the keyboard’s range. He asks soprano Ann Crumb (his daughter) to produce sound effects like a buzzing fly, a whistling wind, or century-old Sprechstimme. Everything emerges succinctly and effectively.

Voices from the Heartland (2010), like its predecessors, raids liberally and often literally from a panorama of hymns, spirituals, American Indian chants, and plain old folk songs, with Ann Crumb joined by the versatile baritone Patrick Mason. Crumb, the composer, makes sure not to step on his material; he places the tunes carefully within his twinkling, sometimes bonking and clattering sound world created by an amplified piano and four very active percussionists.

Soprano Ann Crumb, the composer's daughter, is a soloist on the new release.
Soprano Ann Crumb, the composer’s daughter, is a soloist.

Along the way, the octogenarian assembles some inventive cross-references in order to make a point. In “The War of the Sexes,” “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Maidens” is slammed against “On Top of Old Smoky” simultaneously in keys a half-step apart; the eternal dissonance of male/female courting rituals is made explicitly clear. Crumb actually got the title of the final song, “Song of the Earth” (Das Lied von der Erde, anyone?), from a Navajo tribal chant. But the combination of  its length (13 minutes, the longest song in all seven Songbooks), its position at the end of the cycle and Songbook series, the Molto Adagio opening and closing, the sparse textures, even the final words (“Forever, forever, forever …”) tell you that Herr Mahler was very much on his mind.

The subtleties and deep bass regions of Crumb’s sound world are, as always, beautifully captured by Bridge’s engineering.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide.