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Haskins
American Record Guide, June 2007

Fortunately, the CD booklet includes the composer’s own very readable notes. Canadian flautist Robert Aitken leads this showcase of Crumb’s imaginative and descriptive contemporary music. For Vox Balanae, Aitken’s amplified flute is joined by similarly amplified cello and piano, and it’s the amplification, perhaps, that makes you conscious of the remarkable depth and space enclosed in Crumb’s Japanese-y structures. For the seven-part Frederico’s Little Songs, soprano and harp replace cello and piano in a world of children’s fantasy. From the same year, An Idyll for the Misbegotten is altogether more serious. Aitken is supported by dramatic percussion, again drawing on a Japanese influence. In his earlier work, Crumb’s mind was more on music in its own right than world-weary anxieties. Thus even Eleven Echoes of Autumn is an unbroken sequence of very specific assignments for his chosen instruments—violin, clarinet and piano, to go with Aitken’s alto flute. Crumb’s work displays both wit and conscience. He expresses ideas that are worth expressing, in ways that most people can only wish they could.



Dominy Clements
MusicWeb International, March 2007

Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale), composed in 1971 for the New York Camerata, is scored for flute, cello and piano, all to be amplified in concert performance. The work was inspired by the singing of the humpback whale, a tape recording of which the composer had heard two or three years before writing the work. The piece opens with a prologue in which the instruments are shown in a wide variety of colours. The flautist has much singing into the flute, there are roaring strings from the piano, and the cellist’s opening ‘flautando’ whistles over them all. In many ways this is seminal Crumb, with the techniques employed embodying his philosophy and desire to live entirely within the music, to extract everything humanly possible from the available materials. His sound-world is searchingly experimental, but always idiomatic and respectful of the player and the instruments. The cello’s flute tones sing like seabirds, the flautists vocalisations give a breadth of expression beyond pure notes, and the piano’s strings can become a slide guitar, a thrumming sitar, a bass drum, an echo box, or suggest images such as the sparkling of light through water.

There are of course quite a few conventionally played notes in this piece, and the melodic lines have an exotic, sometimes oriental feel. Open intervals and expressive lines draw the listener into an often beguiling aural environment, and the return of recognisable musical motives provide handles on which to hang the work’s variation form, framed by a prologue and an epilogue. Beautifully performed, if I have any criticism at all then it is in the engineer’s approach to the ‘amplified in concert performance’ instruction. The impression is there with the cello, which is a little more distant in the soundstage but beefed up somewhere along the line, and the alto flute sound becomes a little opaque through the effect given. The piano seems however to be unaffected. While these are relatively innocuous effects I think it might have been better to leave the ‘amplification’ factor out of the equation altogether.

Federico’s Little Songs for Children, written for the Jubal Trio, was completed during the summer of 1986. The seven little poems constituting the Canciones para Niños by Federico Garciá Lorca reflect many different aspects of a child’s fantasy world. The mood can be reflective, playful, mock-serious, gently ironic, or simply joyous. An innocently playful piccolo colours the opening Señorita of the Fan, and each song creates its own atmosphere around the various poems – lyrical flute and harp for Afternoon, the birdsong of the alto flute in A Song Sung, a whispering and wistful voice, sliding harp notes played as the pedals are changed and the more breathy tones of the bass flute characterise the Snail. With each song being short in duration, this cycle is a magical world of imagination and contrast. The relatively gentle flute and harp are unthreatening but capable of their own extremes. With the final Silly Song returning to the piccolo, the sense of a completed journey is satisfying both musically and dramatically.

An Idyll for the Misbegotten for amplified flute and percussion was composed in 1985. The composer states: "I feel that ‘misbegotten’ well describes the fateful and melancholy predicament of the species homo sapiens at the present moment in time", suggesting that the music be "heard from afar, over a lake, on a moonlit evening in August". Such specific instructions might seem impractical, but in fact they are a useful guide for musicians when seeking to recreate the atmosphere desired by the composer – as effective as the hand gestures of Messiaen describing the flight of a bird, even when none of us students understood a word of his eloquent French. The scoring, employing two of man’s oldest instruments, conjures up an often rough hewn primeval atmosphere. Flautist Robert Aitken is the work’s dedicatee, and of course has the technical aspects of the piece well under control – whistle tones and harmonics among them. The use of a quotation from Debussy’s Syrinx is of course instantly recognisable.

Eleven Echoes of Autumn was composed during the spring of 1966 for the Aeolian Chamber Players. The work consists of eleven pieces or echi, which are performed without interruption. Each of the echi exploits certain timbral aspects of each instrument, in the composer’s words: "for example, eco 1 for piano alone is based entirely on the 5th partial harmonic, eco 2 on violin harmonics in combination with 7th partial harmonics produced on the piano by drawing a piece of hard rubber along the strings. A delicate aura of sympathetic vibrations emerges in echi 3 and 4, produced in the latter case by alto flute and clarinet playing into the piano, causing the strings to vibrate sympathetically. At the conclusion of the work the violinist achieves a mournful, fragile timbre by playing with the bow hair completely slack." Such technical descriptions may or may not help, but do give an impression of some of the inner workings of the music. The overall effect is of organic growth though an extended ‘broken arch’, sometimes through atmospheric, Webernesque spareness: sometimes with the filigree passagework which is a fingerprint of Crumb’s expressive palette.

As far as programmatic content is concerned, the composer guides the listener towards the significance of a motto-quote from Federico García Lorca: "... y los arcos rotos donde sufre el tiempo", which translates as; "... and the broken arches where time suffers", whose words are softly intoned as a preface to each of three cadenzas. Again superbly performed, the piano possibly has a little too much of the advantage as far as recorded balance goes, pushing the other instruments aside in the ff of the climax. The engineers will have zoomed in on the strings in order to pick up all those subtle, quiet effects, and this is the penalty. Slight caveats aside, the recording is very good for all of the works on this disc, set in a pleasantly resonant acoustic and with plenty of detail - without placing the instruments right up your nose.

As ever, this kind of music won’t be everyone’s cup of tea; and those keen on ocean noises should be made aware that Vox Balaenae is more Crumb than Whale. If you are already aware of George Crumb’s fascinating sound world then you will know what to expect, and while there are one or two other versions of these pieces in the catalogue you won’t be disappointed by the New Music Concerts Ensemble. At bargain price there’s no better place to start a new exploration. George Crumb’s star in the recording catalogue continues to wax, and with Naxos’ American Series producing fine recordings of his work there can be little doubt that this trend will continue, with every justification.



Kenneth Page
Limelight Magazine, March 2007

Fortunately, the CD booklet includes the composer’s own very readable notes. Canadian flautist Robert Aitken leads this showcase of Crumb’s imaginative and descriptive contemporary music. For Vox Balanae, Aitken’s amplified flute is joined by similarly amplified cello and piano, and it’s the amplification, perhaps, that makes you conscious of the remarkable depth and space enclosed in Crumb’s Japanese-y structures. For the seven-part Frederico’s Little Songs, soprano and harp replace cello and piano in a world of children’s fantasy. From the same year, An Idyll for the Misbegotten is altogether more serious. Aitken is supported by dramatic percussion, again drawing on a Japanese influence. In his earlier work, Crumb’s mind was more on music in its own right than world-weary anxieties. Thus even Eleven Echoes of Autumn is an unbroken sequence of very specific assignments for his chosen instruments—violin, clarinet and piano, to go with Aitken’s alto flute. Crumb’s work displays both wit and conscience. He expresses ideas that are worth expressing, in ways that most people can only wish they could.



Peter Quinn
International Record Review, February 2007

Devoted to the inimitable George Crumb, this latest addition to Naxos's American Classics series presents four works in the composer's favoured chamber medium. The disc opens with Crumb's submarine hymn to the humpback whale, Vox Balaenae, given a commanding, idiomatic performance here by the all-Canadian trio of Robert Aitken, David Hetherington and David Swan on amplified flute, cello and piano respectively. Cast in a continuous tripartite form, the opening 'Vocalise' - featuring the flautist's ghostly snatches of singing while playing, plucked and muted strings in the piano, and the allusion to Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra - is quintessential Crumb. The central 'Sea-­Theme' is announced by the cellist's glacial harmonics, the set of variations that follow proceeding from strange seagull cries to an intense climax in which the piano sounds at its most cimbalom-like. Accompanied by the glittering sound of antique cymbals in a radiant B major, all sense of time is suspended in the closing 'Sea-Nocturne' ('serene, pure, transfigured').

Crumb's works are often distinguished by moments of preternatural beauty: the heart­-stopping appearance of the multiple divisi string triads in A Haunted Landscape, the tintinnabulating conclusion of Star-Child, the extraordinary crystal-glass sequence in Black Angels. Here, it's the concluding gesture of the work - the final, inexorable unwinding into silence of a repeating ten-note figure. If this new recording of Vox Balaenae doesn't quite possess the poetry of the acclaimed account from Zizi Mueller, Fred Sherry and James Gemmell on New World Records, it represents a fine (and inexpensive) introduction to the piece none the less.

Accompanied by harp and an array of flutes, Canadian soprano Teri Dunn gives sparkling performances of Crumb's fantastical Lorca settings, Federico's Little Songs for Children. Each of the seven songs is a miniature jewel-box of colour. Indolently occupying the centre of the cycle, and juxtaposing dreamlike Sprechstimme, sinuous bass flute lines and harp arabesques, 'Caracola' ('Snail') is an other-worldly delight.

The performance of An Idyll for the Misbegotten, scored for amplified flute and percussion, combines exceptional textural and dynamic control with an instinctive feel for the nuances of Crumb's highly emotive musical language, vibrating as it does between the primal and the transcendental. In a typical piece of theatre, the composer suggests that the music is 'heard from afar, over a lake, on a moonlit evening in August'. Suffice to say that it still makes a powerful impression close up, in the living-room, on a chilly evening in January - perhaps an even more dramatic reading than its New World Records precursor.

Rounding off the collection is the evocative Eleven Echoes of Autumnfor violin, flute, clarinet and piano. Composed in 1965, the work's intriguing timbral explorations provide a reminder that Crumb has long pursued an aesthetic in which the metaphysical prevails over the purely mechanical, his oeuvre embodying almost an act of prostration before nature's immeasurable strangeness.

Sumptuously recorded, and featuring booklet notes by the composer himself, this is a uniformly excellent addition to the Crumb discography.




David Patrick Stearns
The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 2006

In decades past, Philadelphia produced the toughest, noisiest modernists on the horizon (the apex being Ralph Shapey). Though a probing sensibility remains very much alive, these current locally born or based composers don't try to portray the aural chaos of the outside world by matching it but by reflecting and often retreating from it.

The George Crumb disc favors works written for flutist Robert Aitken, who is sometimes asked, with entrancing effect, to murmur poetry while playing. In these excellent, sometimes explosive performances, Crumb's musical world has lost none of its allure or singularity.






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3:20:11 AM, 14 July 2014
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