Naxos has been assiduous in picking
up the Musical Heritage Society back
catalogue. These performances were all
recorded between 1991 and 1992 and released
on that label and the cultivated connoisseur
of avant-garde twentieth century Americana
will doubtless have snapped it up. To
those as yet unfamiliar with Crawford
Seeger’s muse let me just counsel you
not to be taken in by the sepia smile
and braided hair of the cover photograph.
This woman packs a modernist punch and
you’ve been duly warned.
The works here occupy
less than a decade’s worth of composition.
The suite for five wind instruments
has a terse introduction and is full
of powerful dissonance, its slow movement
being almost sullenly withdrawn (Andante
tristo) and its finale a vibrant
off-key affair. The Violin Sonata is
the earliest of the pieces performed
by members of the versatile ensemble,
Continuum. Written during 1925-26 it’s
once more in three brisk movements.
Its cast is a strong, hothouse Scriabinesque
one – ultimately take-me-or-leave-me
in nature and uningratiating. The highlight
is the rhythmic games in the central
movement though even here one senses
things becoming uneasily insistent.
And in the finale Crawford Seeger explores
the limits of tonality quite explicitly
though once again tersely, and ends
the sonata with gruff impatience.
The Two Ricercari employ
Sprechstimme as well as declamation
and are not afraid to invoke some Agitprop
as well. She seems often to have been
restless. Much of the music drives with
uneasy, relentless finality, as does
the second of the Ricercari, as indeed
does the Prelude No.1 and the study
in "dissonating" long lines
that is the Study in Mixed Accents (1930).
She makes considerable technical demands
on the soloist in the Diaphonic Suite
No.1 for flute – especially questions
of breath taking. Her second suite for
bassoon and cello tends to mine some
lugubrious sonorities. But the apogee
of her modernist instincts lies in the
Sandburg songs of 1930 and 1932. These
will radically divide opinion; some
will find them remarkable examples of
what a composer could with voice and
ostinato instrumentation seated, as
instructed, as far from the soprano
as possible. Others will recoil from
the over laden and lurid pointlessness
of the exercise.
No quibbles about the
performances and the notes are worthily
supportive of the project. Her later
works are the ones to have garnered
most notice but the earlier ones recorded
here show quite firmly that her avant-garde
sensibility was already solidly in place
by the mid to late 1920s. Strong stuff.
see also review
by Rob Barnett