George Crumb

Night of the Four Moons
Vox balaenae (Voice of the Whale)
Ancient Voices of Children

Claire Booth & Amy Howarth (sopranos) & Hilary Summers (mezzo-soprano)

Nash Ensemble
Diego Masson

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 4 September, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This exquisite late-night BBC Prom was for George Crumb’s 80th-birthday, and was delivered with authority by members of the Nash Ensemble, three singers and (in the opening and closing works) conductor Diego Masson. These pieces are nearly 40 years old.

The opening “Night of the Four Moons” requires only five performers, plus conductor. Hilary Summers, as well as intoning Crumb’s choice of Lorca texts, had her own percussion to play, and, all but cellist Paul Watkins, had to sound a bell as they – Haydn ‘Farewell’ Symphony-like – departed the stage, only then to reconvene under the stage, in a resonant musical echo of earlier themes, as Watkins played high harmonics as the lights dimmed to end the piece.

Given that the piece was written over the few days that Apollo 11 was in space, Crumb’s choice of poems and final musical effect – the cello’s musica mundane (music of the spheres) contrasting spatially with the offstage musica humana – added to the work’s lunar radiance, as did Steve Smith’s eerie banjo and Philippa Davies’s ethereal alto flute (also piccolo), let alone Chris Brannick’s sparing batter of percussion. Summers’s dark voice was perfect for Lorca’s atmospheric snatches, her flamenco-inspired dress matching the Hispanic rhythms that underpin Crumb’s music.

In “Vox balaenae (Voice of the Whale)” Crumb’s attention was diverted from the heavens to the oceans. Davies and Watkins were joined by pianist Ian Brown, with each instrument amplified (the sound was excellent). Davies created vocalisations through her flute, emulating long, lugubrious whale songs. In the variations that followed Crumb recreates the opening of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra. Finally, “Ancient Voices of Children”, composed between the two other works, in 1970, and again setting Lorca texts. As well as a vocal solo – here soprano Claire Booth – there is a part for boy-soprano; as the programme noted here it was taken by Amy Haworth as it was too late in the evening to use a boy!

Despite the Spanish allusions, the delicate intricacy of Crumb’s soundworld seemed more Japanese, particularly with the plucked mandolin and harp, and toy piano. Oboist Gareth Hulse left the stage, while Amy Haworth eventually appeared from off-stage for her final utterance. Claire Booth started by singing into the open lid of the piano and returned there, as well as joining the three percussionists with her own small selection of instruments.

But even with this larger group, and longer time-span, Crumb’s ultra-intimate miniaturism was to the fore; somehow magically making the vast Royal Albert Hall a smaller space.

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