Great American composer Elliott Carter (1908-2012) worked almost until his dying day at age 103, exemplifying what many already knew: Composers have no retirement age.
So it is with two Philadelphia lions in the winter: George Crumb, now 87, and Richard Wernick, 83. Both are Pulitzer winners who have retired from the University of Pennsylvania (in 1997 and 1995, respectively). Both stay stubbornly true to their old selves in two new recordings, which can't help but be heard with new ears in a time that's not their own.
Crumb declared himself out of the game in the early aughts, saying that composition is a young man's profession. Then, in 2003, he began an extravagantly productive phase, yielding seven collections of songbooks for voices and percussion orchestra, and more recently, three volumes of more modestly scaled Spanish Songbooks.
The growing list of works has pushed his Bridge Records discography up to Vol. 18, which will be released later this summer with new and revised works, including The Yellow Moon of Andalusia, Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik, Celestial Mechanics, and Yesteryear. More hotly awaited is the Philadelphia premiere this fall at the Barnes Foundation of Crumb's new piano piece, Metamorphoses Book I, following a successful Washington premiere and a performance at the Holland Festival in Amsterdam by Margaret Leng Tan.
The much-awarded Wernick, also a Bridge-label composer, has a less-comprehensive body of recordings coming out every three or four years. The newest features works both recent and not — and showing a different face from the years when he was Riccardo Muti's new-music consultant with the Philadelphia Orchestra, from 1983 to 1993.
You can almost hear Wernick digging in his heels by refusing to moderate his dense, contrapuntal style in an era where composers such as John Adams, Christopher Rouse, Jennifer Higdon, and Jake Heggie have established a smoother, less-cerebral musical landscape. Still working in the modernist mode of the 1960s and '70s, Wernick picks up where less-than-popular Paul Hindemith left off, with a bit less tonal stability but nonetheless writing for traditional ensembles with densely packed string quartets and concertos. He tried to change the music world from within.
Crumb, in contrast, created his own world of alternative sound where the performing ensemble was fashioned according to exactly what the composer wanted to hear — and in the 1970s, when musical experimentation was more the rule than the exception. He has no future in Philadelphia Orchestra programs: So impractical is Crumb's nontraditional instrumentation that the percussion orchestras of his songbooks required an ensemble such as Orchestra 2001 that could change according to any piece's needs. In the quiet, leafy section of Media where Crumb lives, people joke about keeping him away from unusual traffic sounds because he might incorporate them into his next piece.
Both recordings are perception-changers. Years back, at the premiere of Wernick's Piano Sonata No. 2 at the Curtis Institute, I was sure I would never be smart enough to apprehend the piece. What a surprise to find the chamber-size works on Wernick's new disc to be downright alluring. His bigger, more furrow-browed pieces always had intimate, slow movements, but his smaller-scale Concerto for Cello and Ten Players has a wonderfully intuitive richness of color and is curiously in keeping with our audience-friendly times, though it dates from 1980. The second movement starts with a scales that travel simultaneously to ethereal extremes, very high and very low, step by step, forming the basis of the next 16 minutes of music.
The piece evolves into a treasure box of sound, with a long A-to-Z cadenza that easily stands beside Shostakovich's most ruminative soliloquies. And while the movement starts with scales going separate ways, the conclusion is appropriately paradoxical, with hymnlike chords that simultaneously convey unshakable certainty and profound doubt. After taking that journey, challenging moments of Wernick's 2003 Sextet and 1994 Piano Trio No. 1 don't seem to dwarf my intelligence. So maybe it's time to go back to the Piano Sonata No. 2.
Crumb's disc shows him doing a lot with a little (as opposed to doing a lot with a lot — as is his wont). The composer's decades-long fascination with writing of García Lorca sets the alternating brutal and rarefied tone for The Yellow Moon of Andalusia (2012), whose first song, "Praise of the Clock," begins with a regular pounding that underscores the intractability of time. The last song, "Forest of Clocks," creates a surreal soundscape with showers of notes reminiscent of gamelan music.
Much of the rest of the disc feels familiar: However alternative his language, Crumb has recurring musical signposts — quiet rumbling, exclamatory but enigmatic shouts, eerie silences, an outburst to start, a whisper to end — that he recombines in ways that don't necessary explore new territory but find ominous new corners in the ones that he has inhabited for decades. The 2012 revision of Celestial Mechanics for amplified piano and two pianists is as trippy as anything he's written. Yesteryear — a textless piece for singer and percussion ensemble — is like the Aztec ritual of your imagination full of awe, anguish, and ultimately aloneness. Soprano Tony Arnold and pianist Marantonio Barone occupy Crumb's singular universe as if it's their first home.