Crumb’s Piano Pictures As Vibrant Epitaph For An Enduring Composer

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Composer George Crumb and pianist Marcantonio Barone during a recording session. (Photos by Rob Starobin)

George Crumb: Metamorphoses Books I and II. Marcantonio Barone (piano). Bridge 9551.

DIGITAL REVIEW — This review was originally supposed to be a report on George Crumb’s continuing adventures through his unique sound world. But with the sad news of Crumb’s sudden death Feb. 6 in his Media, Penn., home at the grand age of 92, it has turned into a wake.

Thus, pianist Marcantonio Barone’s new recording of Metamorphoses Book I and II — Volume 20 of the Bridge label’s laudable Complete Crumb Edition — has become the last one to be released during the composer’s lifetime. Barone’s recording of Book I was already released on its own in June 2020 as Volume 19, but this is the first recording to contain both books, the second of which Crumb finished two years ago, still very much on his creative game at 90.

Crumb had a conception of sound that stood apart from the trends and orthodoxies that ruled over his long lifetime. He valued color above all, and he extracted every ounce of color from the piano in the service of his dark, strange, sustained soundscapes, using unorthodox techniques — some borrowed, some invented — to exploit the possibilities of the pedals and the piano strings. He had already composed a magnum opus for the subtly amplified piano in the form of four books of Makrokosmos — an undisguised tip of the hat to Bartók’s epic Mikrokosmos — in the 1970s. With Metamorphoses, a cycle of Crumb’s impressions of a collection of 20 “celebrated” paintings by 14 artists, he came full circle half a lifetime later.

It’s easy to call this stroll through the gallery a 21st-century Pictures at an Exhibition, for like Mussorgsky, Crumb used these paintings as launching pads to enter his own sonic universe. The paintings span more than a century, from James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne: Blue And Gold (1872) to Simon Dinnerstein’s Purple Haze (1991), with Paul Klee receiving the most attention with four paintings, two of which lead off each of the Books.

For me, Debussy’s Preludes also come to mind, particularly since a pianist can make use of the often-ignored sostenuto pedal (the middle one) to achieve the composers’ effects. But while the sostenuto pedal can be a tool in Debussy in a more-or-less conventional way — holding down the bass notes so that two hands could be free to play the rest of the keyboard — Crumb used it to create long, sustained, slowly fading resonances picking up the various hammerings, scrapings, strummings, and other prepared piano effects that he puts the instrument through.

Marcantonio Barone

One of Crumb’s orchestral pieces has a title that sums up the cumulative effect of this collection of miniatures — and that could be applied to many of his other works as well: A Haunted Landscape. And of these 20 miniatures, here are several that stand out for me:

Klee’s Black Prince gets Book I started with zings on the piano strings, stabbed bass notes, and a pounding march. In the two paintings by Marc Chagall, The Fiddler simulates the open strings of a violin ready to be tuned and incorporates some fake Russian-Jewish tunes, while Clowns at Night makes use of a toy piano, ghostly vocal moaning by the pianist, tiny wind chimes, and knocking on a wood block mounted on the cast-iron crossbeam within the piano case. Some Prokofievian motor energy propels Wassily Kandinsky’s The Blue Rider — the momentum building up to the final thromped-on chord.

Another Klee painting opens Book II with Ancient Sound, Abstract on Black — which indeed sounds credibly ancient with its modal parallel fourths. One that I particularly like is Dinnerstein’s Purple Haze; Crumb suggests the Jimi Hendrix record of that name as musical inspiration, but I hear more of George Gershwin’s Prelude No. 2 in this as the right hand becomes a dialogue between piano keys and plucked strings while a two-note riff in the bass clef lurks ominously throughout.

George Crumb

J.S. Bach himself seems to take the place of the Spirit of the Dead Watching in Paul Gauguin’s painting with his musical signature B-A-C-H generating the material as Crumb adds a sizzle cymbal and spring coil drum. Pablo Picasso’s Guernica is hard and violent, with simulated machine-gun fire, a march, and a long quiet conclusion with vocal effect.

Perhaps the most famous painting of the collection, Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night, closes Book II, gentle and crystalline, mysterious in the bass, with faint whistling and notes like droplets of paint. This is how Crumb goes gently into the night — and unless something turns up posthumously from his desk, it might turn out to be his farewell gesture.