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Total Immersion: George Crumb
Barbican Hall 5 December 2009

A little Suite for Christmas, AD 1979;
Ancient Voices of Children;
Makrokosmos, vol 1

Guildhall New Music Ensemble
5 December 2009


Joanna MacGregor – piano

Anna Patalong – soprano

Louis Watkins – treble

Guildhall New Music Ensemble/Richard Baker



Although the day was billed as a Total Immersion, the Barbican’s retrospective of George Crumb’s works could be sampled in a short lunchtime concert as a “quick dip”.


Sensibly the audience had been gathered into the centre section at stalls level, where there is a close visual connection to what is happening on the platform and the complex sonorities of Crumb’s music could be heard to good advantage. 


Joanna MacGregor opened proceedings with the Little Suite for Christmas which is loosely based on Giotto’s Nativity frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua.  There are seven movements, some extremely brief, expressed with outward simplicity.  It is the range of sounds that are important here, and the suite was played with great elegance.


The young musicians of the Guildhall new Music Ensemble took the platform for Ancient Voices; selected fragments of poems by Frederico Garcia Lorca, transformed into something that is at once other-worldly and yet evocative of the practical concern of every mother for the fragility of her child.  From off stage we heard the treble voice of Louis Watkins, clear and persuasive.  On stage was the composed presence of young soprano Anna Patalong singing, vocalising under the lid of the piano to resonate with the strings, stamping her performance of the “role” with complete authority.  From the rostrum Richard Baker held it all together with aplomb – an intense and memorable performance.


Finally, the lights were dimmed as Joanna McGregor returned for the first volume of Makrokosmos depicting the 12 signs of the zodiac [score illustration from programme book; © Peters Edn].  This is a piece of almost unimaginable complexity.  The pianist not only sits to play at the keyboard but must stand to reach in to the strings, singing and whistling along the way.  I think it is heard to its best in a large auditorium where the electronic amplification can take advantage of the scale of the building, but this more confined version brought an immediacy of contact which cast its own spell.   The sudden emergence of a quote from Chopin was rather like walking under a cold shower on a hot day, offering momentary respite to the senses, yet enticing us back into the maelstrom of Crumb’s creation.


Serena Fenwick




Echoes of Time and the River
A Haunted Landscape

Martyn Brabbins conductor Matthew Coorey* conductor Benjamin Shwartz* conductor Nicholas Collon* conductor
Claudia Barainsky soprano Helen Vollam trombone Trinity Boys Choir New London Chamber Choir Handbell Ringers

This concert, intended to culminate a festive day, proved in its profligacy to be a grievous disappointment. Innumerable musicians filled the Barbican platform to questionable worth. An additional lorry had been needed to transport Crumb's extravagant percussion from the rehearsal studio at Maida Vale, where they must have made an unconscionable din.

The three works shared exotic sound colours but with sparse musical content, and they became cumulatively boring to sit through, even given one's affection for some of George Crumb's smaller-scale creations. The worst proved to be his grandiose, allegedly magnum opus, Star-Child, requiring four conductors and boasts an elaborate graphic score, despite which sitting through it proved an ordeal, during which one's thoughts turned to the current recession during which big money is going wrong ways, especially in the City of London - with the Barbican Hall in its midst...

A moderate sized audience in the Stalls, which was not filled (the Circle and Balcony remained empty) did outnumber the musicians on stage and, beforehand, Lux in tenebras, Steve Montague's latest community work given to little but "educational" purpose in the Barbian foyers (another four conductors, including pianist Alissa Firsova debuting with the baton). Brass resounded inside and outside the Barbican Hall, but to lame purpose if you think of, say, Walton's Belshazzar's Feast or Verdi's Dies Irae.

This BBC concert was not broadcast live, but was being recorded through some fifty microphones on stage for future broadcasting on 18 December after their input has been processed; it will be interesting then to compare with the Bridge CD of Star-Child and the other two works repeated in this concert (BRIDGE 9174, Warsaw 2005) all of which have received, now and in the past, widely divergent critical evaluation *
(see quotes below).

Next to follow, the BBC's Total Immersion in Henze and Rihm; we could suggest several
international composers more needy of such exposure in UK...

Peter Grahame Woolf

* an important documentation of a moving musical experience - - the Dies Irae can be matched in the same level with those composed by Mozart or Verdi

The Times- - the monster piece in splashes revealed Crumb again as a composer of genuine, if fragile, gifts

Guardian: Echoes of Time and the River - - now, as groups of BBCSO players trudged dutifully around the platform, seemed dated and musically anorexic. Star-Child - - a requiem of sorts - - the general effects are pleasant enough even if, like so much of Crumb's music, they are fundamentally soft-centred.

Telegraph: Crumb's magic, alas, diminishes as his canvas expands - - the circling harmonies in Star-Child were too close to Bartok for comfort – and, goodness, how they went on. Echoes of Time and the River seemed similarly thin - -

And see our own numerous reivews on line of Crumb live and on disc [Editor]