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James Manishen
Winnipeg Free Press, February 2007

Crumb's sound world is so eerily beautiful one is quickly seduced before realizing how well organized the seemingly endless array of dramatic states are arranged. No one writes for percussion like Crumb, who uses a host of items such as Mexican rain sticks and African takling drums to far greater narrative effect than mere novelty.

The title work dates from 1968 and is a 29-minute exploration for baritone, electric instruments and percussion of death-poems by Federico García Lorca.

It's brilliantly sung and chanted in sprechstimme fashion by Nicholas Isherwood and its evocative instrumental substrate gets the same care.

Quest (1994) is performed as a sextet led by acoustic guitar, with recollections of Amzing Grace in a telling setting that diverts at every turn.

If you're new to Crumb, look no further.

Peter Burwasser
Fanfare, December 2006

George Crumb is not for everybody. He has been criticized for being overly theatrical, even histrionic, and reliant on nonmusical effects, such as asking his instrumentalists to chant or wear masks. For his admirers, including this writer, his music represents some of the most original and powerful of our time. Crumb has developed an inimitable language, and he is unafraid to speak with oversized emotion. The same might be said of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, whose dark and image-laden work has long fascinated the composer, who has made several settings between the years 1962 and 1970. The music at hand, Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death, his largest setting of Lorca, is from 1968. The match of artistic sensibilities here is uncanny, as Crumb explores the shadows and ironic comers of this music with remarkable insight, evoking a sort of primal energy. When I heard this cycle live in Philadelphia a few years ago (as sung by Sanford Sylvan, with the composer present), a woman shrieked in horror at one point, a testament to the power of this marriage of words and music.

This performance is as compelling as the one I recall hearing in Philadelphia. The acclaimed new-music champion Nicholas Isherwood delivers a nuanced and boldly projected version of these songs, which grow in their effect from repeated hearings. Crumb's inspired use of falsetto is especially eerie in this rendition. Turkish-born pianist and conductor Fuat Kent leads the ensemble he founded in 1991 in Austria with the combination of delicacy and howling vigor that is required. Naxos has another strong entry in the "American Classics" series, in short, but there is one important caveat. The release does not include the song texts, which are a must for a full appreciation of this work.

The CD also includes a beautifully wrought recent work by Crumb, Quest, for solo acoustic guitar and six instruments. Again, Ensemble New Art delivers a strong, completely sympathetic, even loving performance. Quest was written in 1994 for the composer's friend and frequent musical collaborator, David Starobin. The almost impressionistic flavor of the music is produced with a Crumb trademark, complex textures rendered by exotic percussion instruments, in this case including hammer dulcimer (a favorite of the West Virginia native), African talking drum, and Mexican rain stick. This allusion to folkloric elements, as well as the inclusion of the melody from Amazing Grace seems to presage the composer's latest work, the four-part American Songbook. It is encouraging to observe that Crumb, now in the second half of his seventh decade, seems not to have lost any of his prodigious imagination.

American Record Guide, December 2006

Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death (1968), for baritone, electric instruments, and percussion, is another set of Lorca poems produced by Crumb in the 60s, this time for male voice, along with an amplified quintet of guitar (it's Lorca, after all), contrabass, two percussionists, and piano (doubling on harpsichord). The atmosphere is, as usual, dark, nightmarish, and more than a little deranged. Baritone Isherwood performs with great effectiveness and virtuosity. The competition is Sanford Sylvan with Speculum Musicae in Bridge's Complete Crumb series. Check for couplings, but this is, of course, less expensive. It's also extremely well recorded and performed.

The coupling is Quest (1994), an extended nocturne for guitar, soprano sax, harp, and percussion (also available on Bridge, with its dedicatee, David Starobin, as guitar soloist). For me, this is one of the composer's most touching efforts, with its endlessly circling fifths and touches of 'Amazing Grace' creating a moving, valedictory atmosphere. Crumb is at his best, or maybe most accessible, when dealing with American folk music- his Unto the Hills is another beautiful example. If you have doubts about this composer's work, you might try these pieces. This program includes both of Crumb's expressive extremes, so it might serve as a good introduction to his music. Notes by the composer.

Dominy Clements
MusicWeb International, August 2006

George Crumb writes almost as much as you need to know in his own booklet notes for these pieces: “From 1962 until 1970 much of my creative activity was focused on the composition of an extended cycle of vocal works based on the poetry of Federico García Lorca. Of the eight works constituting the cycle, Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death is the largest in conception and the most intensely dramatic in its projection of Lorca's dark imagery. The important formal elements of the work are identified in the title. These are, first, the settings of four of Lorca's most beautiful death-poems: The Guitar, Casida of the Dark Doves, Song of the Rider, 1860, and Casida of the Boy Wounded by the Water. Each of these settings is preceded by an instrumental "refrain" (also containing vocal elements projected by the instrumentalists, in most cases purely phonetic sounds) which presents, in various guises, the rhythmic, fateful motif heard at the beginning of the work. And finally, three long "Death-Drones" based on the interval of the fourth.”

Crumb goes on to describe each piece in detail, but for our purposes it is the general impression which is perhaps most important. For many, this music will represent a fairly archetypical example of avant-garde music of the sixties. Extremes of contrast, seemingly directionless, angular, fragmentary passages, shouting and words declaimed in ‘sprechstimme’ – all elements which can have an aversive effect on the uninitiated. Each piece runs on into the next, so that continuity and intensity is preserved. The poems are not reprinted in the booklet, but I would suggest becoming acquainted with them would help a great deal in accessing Crumb’s intentions. Through all of the echoes and musical commentary from instruments already laden with symbolism (the guitar, for instance, “the primitive voice of the world’s darkness and evil”), the texts are clear, and superbly delivered by Nicholas Isherwood. The prevailing mood is darkly sinister, at times surrealist, sometimes ironic, but Crumb is quick to acknowledge the paths which led to his own solutions – Schubert’s Erlkönig for the Song of the rider for instance, and Mahlerian influences in the final Casida of the Boy Wounded by the Water. This last poem is set to chilling piano harmonics and movingly simple, rocking motifs. With some fascinating sound colorations – twanging jew’s harps, water-tuned crystal glasses, a whole raft of percussion and an electric harpsichord there is enough here to make you think, ‘hey, play that again…’ You certainly won’t feel you’ve ‘got it’ on a single hearing, and repeated visits will reward the listener with a huge spectrum of subtlety.

Crumb writes, “Quest was composed at the request of the guitarist David Starobin and was commissioned by Albert Augustine, Ltd. The final revised version of the work was completed in February, 1994, and is dedicated to David Starobin and Speculum Musicae. In requesting this new piece he specified only that I write for acoustic guitar and that the guitar part be treated soloistically. Within the chosen sextet of players the guitar remains the principal protagonist, but other instruments, especially the soprano saxophone, can also take over the principal "voice". The inclusion of a wide variety of percussion instruments gave me an exceptionally colourful palette of timbral and sonoric possibilities. I would specifically cite rather unusual instruments such as the Appalachian hammered dulcimer, the African talking drum, and the Mexican rain stick. …although the movement titles are poetic and symbolic, there is no precise programmatic meaning implied. There is one use of musical quotation in the work: phrases from the famous hymn tune Amazing Grace are played by the soprano saxophone - initially, at the conclusion of Dark Paths, over a delicate web of percussion sonority, and finally, in Nocturnal, over a sequentially slowing ostinato of bare fifths in the harp and contrabass. On the very last page of the score a distant echo of the tune is intoned by a harmonica, or, as in this recording, a concertina.”

Quest immediately shows how Crumb has developed over the 30 years since Songs…The music has is in many ways ‘stabilised’, with more immediately accessible (if still greatly attenuated) tonal relationships and resonances. The various ‘fields’ of sound are sharply delineated, and textures effectively corralled so that the guitar sounds clearly through softly played and transparent instrumentation. The relationships with guitar and tuned percussion, dulcimer and double bass are remarkable (III Forgotten Sounds), and the general effect is one of loneliness, distance and timelessness. The last movement, Nocturnal, is sublime.

If, like me, you consider your life with music to be (among other things) a constant exploration of new experiences, then I can think of few better places for widening your horizons. I already knew Crumb’s Makrosmos for piano and knew I liked his approach to extending sound worlds beyond the conventional, but there are some moments in both of these pieces which had my ears in a spin. Superbly played and recorded as usual, you can give these unique works a try for the price of a couple of drinks in a bar so, while such music can never be all things to all people, I’m once again grateful to Naxos for a such a stimulating and intriguing release.

Elissa Poole
The Globe and Mail, July 2006

George Crumb’s Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death is part of a larger cycle of vocal works from the 1960’s on texts by Federico Garcia Lorca, Spain’s master of macabre imagery. Songs (for electric instruments, percussion and baritone) are sung here by Nicholas Isherwood, whose sepulchral bass (it sounds as if he is singing into a cistern) lends an extra element of horror to Lorca’s already dark and mocking poetry, and the precious quality of Crumb’s meticulous sound world is mediated by the performance’s theatrical momentum.

Julie Williams
MusicWeb International

This disc has been a sheer pleasure to review. Naxos are to be commended on their rapidly broadening repertoire and its extent. This disc also has playing and recording of excellent quality.

The first of the two works is based on and inspired by poems of Lorca. The singing and recitative is for bass voice with electric guitar, amplified double bass, piano, harpsichord and percussion. The image from Lorca's works of the guitar as the primitive voice of the world's darkness and evil underpins the work, which sets four poems (the named movements) on the theme of death, embodying ancient Spanish tradition. Despite the darkness of the material, there is a haunting mystical beauty in the resulting music which makes it complex and thought-provoking rather than unremittingly gloomy.

Its structure and sound-world are immediately recognisable to anyone familiar with the composer's better known piece, 'Black Angels' recorded by the Kronos Quartet, although also by the Tale Quartet from Denmark. Despite the similarities, this work has greater subtlety and nuance; it come out of a lengthy project in which Crumb set Lorca's poetry in four different works, of which this is one.

The second piece was written for the guitarist David Starobin, who has played on all Crumb's recorded works for plucked instruments - mandolin in The Ancient Voices of Children, electric guitar in Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death, sitar in Lux Aeterna and banjo in The Four Moons. He asked that this work be for acoustic guitar. The resulting piece is a mini-concerto with the guitar taking a 'solo' role against a small ensemble. The soprano saxophone has quite a prominent role - for example in the opening of the second movement, where it introduces a quotation from the Scottish hymn 'Amazing Grace' - making this almost a 'double concerto' for small ensemble. Accompanying this are double bass, harp and percussion. The combination of the guitar with this group creates a mesmerising and beautiful effect, with a glistening resonance of sound.

The work repays listening a number of times; it is not entirely straightforward to grasp but grows on the listener with repetition. Although the first, and slightly longer, work is the title track, I like this second work very much and have found it quite fascinating. I have replayed it several times and enjoyed it more each time than the last.

If you like 'Black Angels' you will find this a recognisable approach. If you find 'Black Angels' rather intense, dissonant and hard hitting, this disc may help you to reconsider Crumb's work in a more positive light. If you are interested in modern writing for the guitar, the second work is a gem. If you have any interest in contemporary music, this is interesting music performed and recorded very well for a bargain price.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group