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Ruth CRAWFORD SEEGER (1901-1953)
Suite for five wind instruments and piano (1927 revised 1929) [9.45]
Sonata for violin and piano (1925-26) [14.21]
Two Ricercari (Poems of H T Tsiang) (1932) [8.16]
Prelude No.1 – Andante (1924) [1.14]
Prelude No.9 – Tranquillo (1928) [2.54]
Study in Mixed Accents (1930) [1.31]
Diaphonic Suite No.1 for flute (1930) [5.06]
Diaphonic Suite No.2 for bassoon and cello (1930) [4.17]
Three Songs (Poems of Carl Sandburg) (1930, 1932) [9.05]
Cheryl Seltzer and Joel Sachs, directors
Recorded American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, NYC, 1991 and 1992
NAXOS 8.559197 [56.30]

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wind instruments has a terse introduction and is full of powerful dissonance, its slow movement being almost sullenly withdrawn (Andante tristo) and its finale a vibrant off-key affair.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.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Rob Barnett


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