Thursday, January 24, 2019

George Crumb Makrokosmos, Volumes 1 & 2, Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III), Yoshiko Shimizu, Rupert Struber

I would not think I am going out on a limb if I said straight off that George Crumb's Makrokosmos for Amplified Piano (and Percussion) is a landmark in the New Music of the later stages of the last century, a singular breakthrough in a post-Cagean ambiant sound-color field, a fresh start, a wildly imaginative extending of the kinds of things Henry Cowell and John Cage did to the piano sound--playing inside the piano, altering the strings by "preparing" them, placing objects upon and between the strings to alter the timbre and tone, and etc.

There is a new recording of the whole of it by pianist Yoshiko Shimizu and as needed Rupert Struber on percussion (Kairos 0015029KAi 2-CDs). Having all of it in one place is absolutely a happy thing! I in the first years of this music's life found right away the first recordings of each of the three parts and was taken with it all as much as with any discovery of importance in my life. The versions, those first versions were very fine. I still have the LPs I believe but in any event they are indelibly etched into my being. Those first recordings are hard to top. What does it take to do a successful performance of these pieces?

A first and somewhat obvious need is for a technically and stylistically seasoned player who knows New Music ways and can execute difficult passages in the thick of something at times ritually primal. Also a pianist must be comfortable or learn to be comfortable with the idea of extended techniques, primarily strumming, plucking, striking, sliding over the strings in very specific ways and using just the right amount of sostenuto to make of the piano a universe unto itself, not to mention a harp, a percussion instrument, a non-Western stringed instrument, a guitar, all manner of things.

Then one must place objects upon the strings at times to alter the sound, and there are quite specific ways the composer specifies. Further one is called on to whisper sotto voce specific phrases, some from the Latin Mass, and yet others with moodful impact, all in dramatic ways at strategic points. The pianist is also called upon to chant or sing along with or against a piano part at times, to exclaim, etc. There are quotations from Chopin, from the Medieval  Dies irae hymn for the dead, and so forth, all of which make of the music a consummate whole like no other before. The percussion parts in the third part primarily must enter into the music with the same commitment to the ambiance of the work. Above all the pianist and the percussionist must frame each part in relation to the very dramatic and rather cosmic whole. Space is key, color is key, and so also an almost ritual dedication to giving meaning to the on-the-surface abstract demands of the whole.

Ms. Shimizu is fully up to the challenge and Rupert Struber seconds her wonderfully well. The performances are in every way extraordinary and very much in keeping with Crumb's dramatic vision and philosophy of sound-generation theater.

To give the proper credit I should note that Akiko Shibata takes on the whistling role in "Makrokosmos I & II" and Natsumi Shimizu (Yoshiko's daughter) realizes the parts for slide whistle, alto recorder and whistle in "Music for a Summer Evening." And all is as it should be. Every detail of these works is decisive to the whole, and here they each get careful attention, happily.

It is some of the most beautiful and evocative Modern Music you can hear, and I believe I am not alone when I unabashedy confess that I love this music dearly. On the first few listens to this new version I had the original recordings firmly in my head and at times I thought, "well, possibly I like the original version of this passage a little better," but then by listen three or four I was sure there were things I liked better about this version, the overall pacing, the unified first-to-last feeling of the whole-as-whole. And so I am glad to have the originals but very glad too to have this new version. I think it essential. There is in this performance an overarching understanding that comes across the whole of the music, a confidence, a sureness and deliberateness that one can perhaps only get after a work has been out there in the air this long (47 years now for the first part!) and the artist has internalized fully the unique syntax that the work represents

So I not only do not hesitate to recommend the music and the performances here. I would say that this is vital, even mandatory listening for anyone serious about the Modern, and even those who are not sure of what that is. Crumb extended some vital tendencies of the "Local Schools" of New Music and helped bring on an ever-increasing emphasis upon what one might call "Ambiant Theater" in the post-Modern Modernity we live in today.

Close listening is what is needed, for words can only take you so far. So by all means hear this! Molto bravo!

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