CRUMB: Makrokosmos, Volumes I and II. 24 Fantasy-Pieces after the Zodiac for Amplified Piano. Otherwordly Resonances for Two Amplified Pianos.
Quattro Mani (Susan Grace and Alice Rybak, duo pianists)
BRIDGE 9155 (F) (DDD) TT: 77:02

GLASS: Symphony No. 2. Symphony No. 3.
Bournemouth Symphony Orch/Marin Alsop, cond.
NAXOS 8.559202 (B) (DDD) TT: 67:07

ARENSKY: Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 35 No. 2 for Violin, Viola and Two Cellos (Alexander Kerr, violin; Kirsten Johnson, viola; Timothy Eddy, cello; Eric Kim, cello). HARBISON: Quartet No. 4 for Two Violins, Viola and Cello (Orion String Quartet). SCHNITTKE: Moz-art for Two Violins, after Mozart K. 416d (Todd Phillips and Daniel Phillips, violins)

George Crumb (b. 1929) is the senior American composer on these three releases – in his case Volume 8 in Bridge’s projected complete recordings of all his music. Pianist Robert Shannon has previously participated in Volumes 5 and 6, and here plays all but the concluding 9:41 out 77:02 minutes of stunningly recorded performances of the two books, 12 pieces in each, called Makrokosmos I & II. These were written respectively in 1972 and 1973 for pianists David Burge (I) and Robert Miller (2), and (Crumb says) “reflect my admiration for two great 20th-century composers of piano music – Béla Bartók and Claude Debussy. I was thinking, of course, of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos and Debussy’s 24 Preludes. However, these are purely external associations, and I suspect that the ‘spiritual impulse’ of my music is more akin to the darker side of Chopin, and even to the child-like fantasy of early [Robert] Schumann.... In both volumes, each of the 12 ‘fantasy pieces’ is associated with a different sign of the zodiac and with the initials of a person born under that sign.” Echoes of Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, although in no way musically. In fact of the composers cited, Bartók is the only one who might not be dumbstruck by the use of amplification and a whole set of extra-keyboard effects pioneered by John Cage and Henry Cowell. Being a Scorpio, Crumb is as deep into personal arcana as he is into Astrology, whose most recent heyday was the ‘70s.

Moderate your set’s gain control at the start lest the usual setting blows out your speakers. Adjustments can then be made before one sits back and either succumbs to Crumb’s muse or scoffs at music that, for all its “modernity,” seems dated three decades later. I still remember the premiere of Echoes of Time and the River by members of the Chicago Symphony, who had to walk about while playing under Irwin Hoffman’s authoritative direction in Mandel Hall on the University of Chicago’s Hyde Park campus. It was startling, fascinating, avant garde for the time, albeit embarrassing to some of the older players who had to mosey among their seated colleagues. I have never “enjoyed” anything of Crumb’s as much since (there was no “before”), although snatches of his muse-masters that suddenly penetrate the amplified world of Viet Nam-era music are touching without seeming arbitrarily wrenched from any context. David Burge made the first, ferocious recordings of the two Makrokosmoi but they are long since gone. Several versions have followed, however, including one by the otherwise unknown (and unheard) Margaret Leng Tan on Mode [142], also released in 2004. But hers does not have the appended Otherworld Resonances for two amplified pianos, composed in 2002, although this strikes me as pretty much ausgespielt expressively, as the Germans say (“played out,” that is). Nice but noodly, compared to the two volumes of Makrokosmos, which Shannon plays less aggressively than Burge but no less engrossingly, just as his speaking and singing voice are gentler than Burge’s (Crumb jampacked these pieces for dauntless performers). But the music, for those who share its wave-length(s), exerts a spell; given that contextual caveat, the disc is recommended with special kudos for Bridge’s dedicatory zeal and commitment.

Suddenly, after a considerable hiatus, we are being treated with – and surprised by in my own case – recordings of concert pieces by Philip Glass (b. 1937). To Orange Mountain Music’s recent first of four volumes called “The Concerto Project” – for cello, coupled with one for 14 timpani – Naxos now gives us Symphonies 2 and 3, composed respectively in 1992 and 1993, likewise in performances from Britain led by an American conductor. The Bournemouth Symphony rises to the occasion as bracingly as the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic did under Gerard Schwarz in the concertos, with Marin Alsop conducting the most involved and insightful performances I have heard from her to date. The Third Symphony in four conventional movements is actually for chamber-size orchestra, although it has all the hallmarks of Glass’ orchestral mastery, subtleties galore within his trademark sequential style, and a melodically haunting slow movement. The Second Symphony in three movements totaling 43:14 is a large-scale piece, stylistically unmistakable but, like the Third, with all manner of subtleties within Glass’ traditionally iterative method. Again we have a hauntingly lovely slow movement and plenty to engage the ear elsewhere, if one listens carefully. Glass has turned out to be a prolific composer of concert works – a Seventh Symphony will have its premiere at Kennedy Center during the National SO’s current season, Leonard Slatkin conducting – and these are major works, make no mistake, although Glass’ reputation worldwide is for operas in collaboration with Robert Wilson. With Schwarz, Alsop, Slatkin and Dennis Russell Davies as advocates, however, his place in history is likely to be protean rather than limited. Recorded sound (from “The Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset”) is one of producer-engineer Tim Handley’s exceedingly admirable accomplishments – bold, rich, in every way big-league. If you’re not a Glassolalian yet, listen, be converted, and join the rest of us latecomers. Need I add recommended?

Koch International’s Santa Fe Festival disc is a first-class recording from August 2002 of really lovely ensemble playing by the Orion String Quartet, for whom John Harbison wrote his String Quartet No. 4 at age 64. Harbison (b. 1938) has an international reputation that finds me among demurrers. His work usually strikes me as both contrived and rather watered-down, although in his defense the “Vivo” finale of Quartet No. 4 has teeth and tension if not exactly charm or individuality. Oddly, it is this lack of individuality that seems to be Harbison’s signature as a composer, and three movements before the piece comes alive shifts attention back to the neglected Quartet No. 2 that Anton Arensky composed as a memorial the year after Tchaikovsky’s death. The second movement is a set of variations on an 1883 Tchaikovsky song, “Legend” (a.k.a. “When Jesus Christ was but a Little Child”), while the first and third “incorporate traditional Russian funeral music.” It is an altogether moving and beautiful work that the Orion Quartet’s two violins, cellist and guest cellist Eric Kim (i.e. no viola) play with an eloquence and tonal homogeneity that remind me of Germany’s preeminent Hagen Quartet. I almost wish that one of the late Alfred Schnittke’s quirky bagatelles, this one called Moz-Art for Two Violins, after Mozart’s K.416d, had been omitted. It seems out of place in this company, especially after the Harbison finale. But then Koch would have had an even shorter-measure disc, less than 50 minutes, at full price. For Arensky and the playing of his Quartet No. 2 I’m keeping it.

R.D. (December 2004)