When he embarked on his American Songbook series around the turn of the century, George Crumb envisioned four sets of about nine songs for female voice, amplified piano, and percussion ensemble. By the time of this 2011 Bridge release, the number of songbooks had grown to seven, the fifth of which is recorded here, along with The Ghosts of Alhambra, the first in his Spanish Songbook series. The first four American Songbooks used folk and traditional songs from a wide variety of traditions, including spirituals, folk songs, and hymns, with the melodies sung virtually intact and surrounded by Crumb's characteristic colorful, delicately aphoristic orchestration. The Fifth Songbook, titled Voices from a Forgotten World, varies from its predecessors in its use of two singers, and the composer wrote two original melodies set to Native American texts for which no written music survives. Musically, it is very much in the tradition of the earlier volumes, and should have a strong appeal for the composer's fans. Crumb's mystical/magical instrumental writing frequently tends to have a menacing quality that is more effective as accompaniment for some songs than for others. It works especially well in songs like "The House of the Rising Sun" and "The Demon Lover," whose dark themes are heightened by Crumb's ghostly instrumental sounds. The approach is less persuasive in "Bringing in the Sheaves," a joyful hymn sung at such a dirge-like tempo and with such creepy accompaniment that the effect at best throws an ironic pall over the text. His setting of Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer" is particularly successful even though it changes the character of the original entirely. Crumb creates an ethereal, mysterious instrumental dreamscape in which one musician whistles the tune and the singers deliver the text in a hushed whisper, as if into the ear of a sleeping lover. The Native American songs, whose melody and accompaniment were both conceived by Crumb, are particularly well-integrated and engaging.
For The Ghosts of Alhambra, for baritone, guitar, and percussion, Crumb returns to the poetry of Federico García Lorca, an inspiration for numerous earlier works. The combination of instruments is wonderfully felicitous for conveying the distinctly Spanish flavor of the texts. Some of the songs have sections with a dance-like regularity of pulse that's not generally characteristic of Crumb's music. Baritone Patrick Mason and mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck are terrific in negotiating both the lyrical lines and the extended vocal techniques. Guitarist David Starobin, percussionist Daniel Druckman, and the percussion ensemble Orchestra 2001, led by James Freeman, deliver superb, deeply committed performances of the demanding scores. Bridge's sound is clear, detailed, and vibrant.