> Ruth Crawford Seeger [CC]: Classical Reviews- May2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ruth CRAWFORD SEEGER (1907-1953)
Little Waltz
Little Lullaby
Jumping the rope (Playtime)
Mr Crow and Miss Wren go for a walk
Theme and Variations
Five Canons
Kaleidoscopic Changes on an Original Theme
Five Preludes (1924/5)
Four Preludes (1927/8)
Piano Study in Mixed Accents
We Dance Together
The Adventures of Tom Thumba.
Jenny Lin (piano); aTimothy Jones (narrator).
] Recorded at Nybrokajen, Stockholm, Sweden in August 2001.
BIS CD1310 [75’28] [DDD]


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I first came across Crawford Seeger’s music on an old Nonesuch LP which coupled her String Quartet (1931) with quartets by George Perle and Milton Babbitt. Her quartet is an impressive piece by an impressive lady, a composer who developed a clear, individual voice.

Taiwanese pianist Jenny Lin provides a useful survey of Crawford Seeger’s output for piano. This disc is every bit as fascinating as her previous solo disc for BIS, Chinoiserie (BIS CD1110). As the booklet notes point out, one can hear Crawford Seeger’s preternaturally rapid development as a composer just by listening to the earlier tracks on the disc: the title of the first, Little Waltz (1922), is not kidding. It is harmless and completely unobjectionable; similarly, Little Lullaby and Jumping the rope (Playtime) (both undated, but both clearly early) are charming. Little Lullaby has a music-box quality about it, while Jumping the rope is simply great fun. The pieces up to the Sonata are all a delight (Mrs Crow and Miss Wren go for a Walk gets a clean, witty performance and is all the more effective for it).

The six-minute Piano Sonata of 1923 still shows Crawford Seeger’s Romantic sensibilities, and is blessed with an arresting ff octaves opening gesture. This piece is just one year on from the unpretentious miniatures that opened the disc, yet already one can sense Crawford Seeger’s imagination expanding at a rate of knots. Lin plays it with utter conviction. She commendably refuses to over-sentimentalise and the piece grows in integrity because of this. The way Lin melts into the 1923 Theme and Variations is most affecting: here is seven minutes of pure delight, which also contains glimpses of Crawford Seeger letting her hair down and being determinedly and outrageously ‘popular’. Listening to the Five Canons (1924) and the Kaleidoscopic Changes on an Original Theme (also 1924), one can hear Crawford Seeger’s compositional confidence growing. The canons are but fleeting glimpses (the longest is 1’31, the shortest 26 seconds); Kaleidoscopic Changes seems an apt title rather than ‘Variations’ as there is indeed great variety, from the spiky first variation to the lovely ‘warm’ harmonies which Crawford Seeger sometimes elects to use.

The Preludes of 1924-28 (in two groups: Five Preludes of 1924/5 and Four Preludes of 1927/8), along with the Piano Study in Mixed Accents reveals Crawford Seeger moving up an avant-garde gear. There is real daring here and one can almost feel the sense of discovery. The Five Preludes begin in a decidedly Schoenbergian fashion and remain in this more modern world. The second is distinguished by compositional impetuosity; the third and fifth by their desolate and bleak moods and textures. Similarly, Bartók makes his influence known in Prelude No. 8 (i.e. the third of the Four Preludes of 1927/8), whilst the slow and hypnotic No. 9 rises from the depths of Debussy’s submerged cathedral.

The Piano Study in Mixed Accents (1930) is given here in three performing versions,

each dynamically distinct. It is a very difficult piece and in Lin’s hands every note is clear. Her third version is positively volcanic. In the case of this piece, there have been alternative versions, although none as thoroughly contextualised as this: Alan Feinberg made a recording on a disc called The US Innovator (Argo 436 925-2), while Reinbert de Leeuw played one version on Portrait of Ruth Crawford Seeger (DG 449 925-2).

Presumably for the sake of completeness We dance together is included, a delightful waltz used for teaching purposes. Finally, there is The Adventures of Tom Thumb for narrator and piano (1925). Timothy Jones is witty in describing the adventures and Lin plays characterfully, but the value of this disc lies in the solo works. Very strongly recommended.

Colin Clarke


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