Maybe Crumb’s Black Angels just isn’t meant for CD.

I’ve recently discovered George Crumb‘s Black Angels for string quartet. I’ve always shied away from Crumb thinking the silliness couldn’t possibly be worthwhile. Boy was I wrong with his Black Angels! This is Ligeti + Penderecki + Dutilleux taken to a whole new level! So when I saw one of my favorite string quartets, Quatuor Hanson, had tackled it, I started getting to know the piece. And turned to YouTube.

And to my utter surprise, I realize the genius of George Crumb.

YouTube can be a real asset. Watching several groups perform this piece, I have concluded it definitely benefits from the visuals – watching everything the group does on stage to create the sounds they do is as interesting as the music itself. So reducing it to an audio recording dramatically diminishes its impact. So there is no room for fault. It must be sonically impressive and immersive on its own terms. Thus the record label becomes an important player.

Without getting into the details of the piece itself (which I will save for another day), I will focus on this current CD release from Quatuor Hanson – a young French group with whom I’ve been immensely impressed this year. Their recordings have opened my eyes and ears to the glories of contemporary string quartet music from composers such as Dutilleux, Ligeti and Bartok. And in so doing, piqued my interest in such a way I crave more and have explored further – into the world of Penderecki and now George Crumb.

After watching this group’s live performance of Black Angels on YouTube, it was with the highest expectations I listened to their CD recording of it. Interestingly, the recording was taken from a different live performance than the one filmed for YouTube. And unfortunately, the CD, on a label completely unknown to me, “B Records“, is problematic.

Before listening, I read the, um, “booklet”. It’s not a booklet; it’s a big piece of paper, folded up multiple times and stuffed into the sleeve. Be that as it may, I was interested in knowing how the producer/engineer handled Crumb’s requirement for the string quartet to be “amplified” (or “electric”) for an audio recording. There is no actual technical information about that anywhere. But what I did read was fascinating – especially after hearing the end result. The producer interviewed first violinist, Anton Hanson, and asked him specifically about the reverb that Crumb wanted from the amplification. Mr. Hanson replied that they had wanted to minimize that: “it would be a pity to drown all” the intervals, pitches and motifs “which are so expressive and meaningful”. So they worked with a music data processing engineer who could manipulate the electronic reverb (and the balance) on the fly. Reading this, I thought – GOOD! The “amplified string quartet” indication for this piece is what always turned me off to it. So for a CD, the less electronic processing the better; let the musicians work their magic and do their thing.

Unfortunately, that isn’t what happened.

Whatever the “data processing engineer” might have achieved in real time may have sounded good to the audience in a big auditorium, but it was badly handled by the B Records recording team. It sounds as if they aimed their microphones directly at the loudspeakers in the auditorium, rather than capturing the acoustic sounds of the stringed instruments supplemented by the effect created out in the hall. The result is a pronounced artificial, electronic reverb and glaze to the sound of the instruments which does indeed mask (or at least distract from) some of the subtleties of the score – which is exactly what Mr. Hanson said he didn’t want to have happen!

Further, the dynamics are so grossly exaggerated on this recording it’s extremely difficult to listen to on a home stereo system. The softs are so soft they are nearly inaudible at a normal playback volume, while the louder passages are boosted almost to the point of distortion. I couldn’t believe my ears. There are passages which sound like intentional overload distortion like you hear on a punk rock band’s lead guitar. OK – I’m exaggerating a little; it’s not that bad. But it is there. And it’s that kind of sound I was reminded of, especially on solo passages such as the 1st violin’s Devil Music (where the violin sounds absolutely enormous, not just in sheer loudness but in size as well) and during the cello’s mournful God-music

Some of this is Crumb’s intention. I understand that. But this recording makes no attempt to hide the electronic enhancement going on. And the problem, at least on CD, is that the performance is rendered somewhat clinical and calculated. With acoustics and atmosphere minimized, the music becomes too matter of fact – and obviously manipulated – and the piece loses some of its fantastic allure and intrigue. 

To put this into perspective, it’s not unlistenable. Far from it. The playing is fabulous by any measure and it is a fine performance – although I thought the group was in too big a hurry to get through several passages. The dynamic range (always a hallmark with this quartet) is phenomenal, though the augmentation by the electronics is extreme. I was actually reminded of a “B” horror movie in which shock value is the ultimate goal – scenes where the dialog is so soft one can barely hear it followed immediately by a sudden scream at full volume intended to scare the daylights out of you. Similar here. There are so many soft passages which are nearly inaudible on this recording, eliminating the atmosphere which should be created, and the next moment the listener is jolted with an unnaturally loud, electronically enhanced outburst, in its own, completely different, artificially created acoustic, hardly sounding like real people playing real music on real instruments when listening at home on the stereo.

Completing the disappointment, B Records decided to include the applause at the end. UGH. It comes as an unwelcome intrusion after the final bell-tones have faded away. It is especially annoying since the audience was completely silent throughout the performance and we weren’t even aware of their presence – until they started clapping. 

So I come back to the phrase I used at the top to introduce this review, and wonder: can this piece work on CD? Shorn of the visuals and with the amplification processes involved, can we expect to fully appreciate it on an audio system in a home environment? I think so. Under the right circumstances. I’ve heard 2 other CDs so far and both sound more natural and musically involving than this new one, revealing all the color and rich atmosphere which make the piece so unimaginable and mesmerizing. But are they realistic? Yes. There is just enough steeliness to the string sound, and body to sounds such as pizzicato glissandi and thimbles on strings (etc.) to accurately convey the electronic enhancement involved – without knocking us over the head with it. (Or sounding like a rock concert.) No, they don’t have the shocking impact that B Records delivers, but I’m just as happy without it.   

After being less than enthralled with this one from the magnificent Quatuor Hanson, I thought, well if they can’t bring this off successfully then no one can. But that’s not quite fair, because the recording engineer plays such an important role in this. As a percussionist in the companion piece on this CD is quoted in the “pamphlet” says: “It’s really a performance as a quintet with the sound engineer!” And that is absolutely true.

With all this in mind, and wondering if I’m being too hard on this CD, I revisit Quatuor Hanson’s YouTube video of Black Angels, which was recorded at a different concert performance than the one used for the CD, and was produced for Medici TV. I am amazed at how much more natural and atmospheric it sounds. And as a performance too, so much more colorful and musically expressive. The Hansons take their time in creating otherworldly sounds and effects (further illustrating how rushed and meticulous the CD version sounds). And the electronic manipulation is much more subtle as well. Surely – surely – this would have made a better-sounding CD.

In closing, I’m dismayed with the end result heard on this CD and am curious if Quatuor Hanson are happy with it. But more importantly, one wonders why the completely unknown record label, “B Records”, was entrusted with this project. This wasn’t your average recording session; it seems to have been a very complex and complicated production to get right. And I’m not convinced they succeeded. I’ve never heard of the label before and frankly, based upon what I hear here, would be very hesitant to buy another title from them. As it turns out, what an unfortunate name for a record label – I will forever equate B Records with B movies.

Post script.
As to the coupling, Mikrokosmos III – Music for a Summer Evening, I am completely unfamiliar with the piece and simply have no experience on which to base an evaluation of the performance recorded here. I will say, though, that I enjoyed the piece enough to want to explore it further. I can also say the playing is excellent and the recorded sound is more atmospheric and colorful than in the string quartet. (It was recorded at a different concert.) It is more “acoustic” and less obviously “amplified”, and any electronic manipulation is minimized. At least until the final movement where something has gone wrong here as well and the sound becomes out-of-focus and diffuse. I have not seen the score and thus can only guess what I might be hearing. It sounds like sheets of paper are placed directly onto the piano strings which create a buzzing sound with each hammer strike, kind of like mosquitos. But there is something amiss with the recording microphones and the sound disintegrates into distortion, almost as if a pickup mic is shorting in and out. I don’t think that’s what’s happening but I can’t explain what is.

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