Volume 15 of the Complete Crumb Edition is a gem: subtle word painting, riots of instrumental colour and vocal artistry abound.
The Ghosts of Alhambra begins the musical feast. This seven movement selection from Federico García Lorco’s Poema del cante jondo (Poem of the Deep Song) is a fascinating display of how combining disparate elements (vocal lines, Sprechstimme, whispers, guitar and percussion) can result in a unified whole that is as satisfying dramatically as it is musically.
The sudden power of all three protagonists is enough to awake the dead in the opening “Dawn” before a calmer middle section, marvellously conjures up visions of young Spanish girls with petite feet—the handoff from baritone Patrick Mason’s final “s” of “faldas” (skirts) is seamlessly melded into the fabric by percussionist Daniel Druckman before the bells (and belles?) of Córdoba resume their early morning duties.
Guitarist David Starobin both comes into his own and simultaneously fuels the subject matter of “The Six Strings.” Often surrounded by gongs, his sure touch and variety of tone beguiles the ear even as the first whisper of many (so appropriately describing “escape through its round mouth”—gently sprinkled with sleigh bells) serves notice that composer George Crumb will make full use of everyone’s possibilities of timbre.
“Dance” is joyful in its snappiness, driven forward with bare-hand dexterity as human flesh meets tightly pulled drum skins. Mason proves to be a master of control, tact and subtlety in “Landscape.” The notion of less can be more is gently bowed and brushed into the ear as cymbals add a wonderful complement to the dry utterings and supportive strings; the sense of field-as-fan is marvellously realized.
“¡Ay!” is as terrifying as its text (“Everything has broken in the world”). Little wonder tears are called for. Starobin’s weeping interjections are as tastefully rendered as they are perfectly descriptive.
When death does arrive (“Malagueña”) it’s presented as a veritable March of the Damned with a set of temple blocks artfully serving as the hooves for passing black horses. The final dollop of punctuation stands mightily alone in stark contrast to all that came before.
A sort of barcarolle lilt infuses the last offering, “Memento.” Druckman’s delicately rendered vibes add an ideally “other world” feel as the music winds down with a pervasive sense of inevitability, hopefully awaiting another “Dawn” before leaving the planet. As such, this cycle could repeat continuously until—literally—there is no one left to hear.
Voices from a Forgotten World is a masterpiece. Crumb has done a superb job of selecting ten well-loved songs/texts then resetting each one, making something old so very new again.
Mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck and Mason largely take turns in the spotlight (sharing the stage in the exotic, breathtakingly distant “I Wonder as I Wander,” where the final words are steeped with gender bending truth, “Beautiful Dreamer”—unforgettable with its famous tune being whistled as the text is spoken over a bed of curiously electric hues producing the intriguing feeling that Stanley Kubrick would be nodding in silent approval of this eerie duet between witch and warlock, whatever mystical abode he may now inhabit …—and the closing cautionary tale, “The Demon Lover.” The latter brings new meaning to “misterioso,” has a compelling echo of the earlier “The House of the Rising Sun” and features a descent into Hell that never made purgatory seem more inviting.
Mason shines especially brightly with his deft characterization in “Hallelujah, I’m A Bum” (Crumb is at one with the satirical lines, making no apologies and employing a bass “bum” to excellent effect). Van Eyck demonstrates incredible breath control in the oh-so-deliberate opener, “Bringing in the Sheaves.” She infuses floating anguish and delectable bends/slides into “The House of the Rising Sun”—the perfect tonic to Mason’s first commandingly powerful then quietly menacing “Somebody Got Lost in A Storm.”
Orchestra 2001, consisting of pianist Marcantonio Barone and four percussionists (William Kerrigan, Susan Jones, David Nelson and Angela Nelson) readily provide the nether worldly soundscapes. Conductor James Freeman keeps everything well-balanced while engineer Adam Abeshouse does stellar work capturing the disparate colours and—at times—desperate poems (“Song of the Thunder” is nothing short of astonishing, filled with Richard Strauss-like nature personified, between verse chorus and a full blooded/throated Mason who overwhelms the ear with passionate art).
What fun to contemplate this singular disc being added as the classical music component of a time capsule. When opened millennia from now, any listener would learn much about how deceptively simple ideas can mature into spectacular creations. JWR