George Crumb 70th Birthday Album

Review by: David Hurwitz

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

This miraculous disc represents the fulfillment of a dream for all those music lovers who find themselves captivated by American composer George Crumb’s haunting, evocative, and passionate musical soundscapes. Star-Child is his largest work; so large, in fact, that it’s almost never performed. It’s scored for solo soprano, solo trombone, boys’ choir, male choir, bell ringers, and a large orchestra in which the various instrumental groups are divided up and spread around the concert hall. The difficulties of coordinating and balancing these huge forces in performance are tremendous, and they all have been triumphantly surmounted by Bridge and its intrepid group of Polish and American performers, including the composer himself as “special guest” bell-ringer. From the mysterious opening, with its nocturnal, Bartókian string sonorities, to the thundering drums of “Musica Apocalyptica”, Bridge’s recording captures every nuance of this vast, but not especially lengthy score. Soprano Susan Narucki and trombone soloist Joseph Alessi sing and play as if to the manner born, while the Polish forces, under Thomas Conlin, provide enthusiastic and committed support. Star-Child’s musical language is both uncompromisingly modern, as well as thoroughly approachable. Most importantly, it is instantly communicative, and an ideal musical embodiment of its Latin biblical and liturgical texts. As a composer concerned with “spiritual” issues at this turn of the millennium, any two seconds of Crumb are worth more than all the John Taveners and Arvo Pärts rolled into one.

The other works on this album further attest to the stylistic range and versatility of one of our greatest living composers. Subtitled “Five Humoresques for Guitar and Percussion”, the delightful little piece Mundus Canis (A Dog’s World) depicts in each of its brief movements one of the Crumb family’s pets. The work grew out of a David Starobin commission originally intended for his splendid disc of guitar miniatures issued by Bridge under the title New Dance; and with the composer himself playing the percussion and Starobin on guitar, it’s a sure bet that this musically winsome and downright funny performance will be the standard-setter for all future comers.

The celebration continues with a true Crumb family affair: the performance of the Three Early Songs. These simple, supple lyrics, Crumb’s earliest acknowledged works (originally written for his wife, Liz), demonstrate that even way back in 1947 he showed extraordinary sensitivity in his response to poetic texts, and in his ability to find equivalents for them in music. The composer accompanies his daughter, actress and singer Ann Crumb, whose non-operatic but professionally trained voice perfectly suits the music’s artless sincerity.

It’s impossible for me to write about this recording without adding a personal note, which I hope won’t compromise my critical objectivity too much. I have had the privilege of meeting the composer on several occasions, and was indeed tangentially involved with the creation of Mundus Canis, and directly involved with the world premiere in Cannes, France. There, in my capacity as chairman of the Cannes Classical Awards, we presented Crumb with a “Living Composer” award for his then new work, Quest (performed by Starobin and Co. and recorded by Bridge). I also count it as a joy and an honor to have been associated over the years with Bridge Records’ owners Becky and David Starobin, two of the most creative, dedicated, and sincere people in the world of music today. Ever since I first heard that old, and still remarkable Nonesuch recording of Ancient Voices of Children, I have been hooked on Crumb’s music. This first studio recording of Star-Child has been a subject that has been “kicking around” in conversation for years. The fact that Becky and David Starobin were able to get this project off the ground at all is a miracle, and a true labor of love. I can’t imagine a finer gesture to a great composer in his 70th year. Happy Birthday, George!

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Recording Details:

Album Title: George Crumb 70th Birthday Album
Reference Recording: This One

GEORGE CRUMB - Star-Child; Mundus Canis (A Dog's World); Three Early Songs

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