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Ruth CRAWFORD SEEGER (1901-1953)
Vocal, Chamber and Instrumental Works

Suite for Five Wind Instruments and Piano (1927 rev. 1929) [03:57; 02:52; 02:56]
Jayn Rosenfeld, flute; Marsha Heller, oboe; John Craig Barker, clarinet; Cynde Iverson, bassoon; Daniel Grabois, horn; Cheryl Seltzer piano; Joel Sachs conductor
Violin Sonata (1925-26) [05:09; 03:14; 05:58]
Mia Wu, violin; Cheryl Seltzer piano
Two Ricercari (1932) Sacco Vanzetti; Chinaman Laundryman [05:05; 03:11]
Nan Hughes, mezzo-soprano; Joel Sachs piano.
Prelude No. 1 (1924) Andante [01:14]
Prelude No. 9 (1928) Tranquillo [02:54]
Study in Mixed Accents (1930) [01:31]
Cheryl Seltzer piano Diaphonic Suite No. 1 for Flute (1930) [00:48; 02:20; 01:06; 00:51]
Jayn Rosenfeld, flute
Diaphonic Suite No. 2 for Bassoon and Cello (1930) [01:25; 01:50; 01:03]
Susan Heineman, bassoon; Maria Kitsopoulos, cello
Three Songs (1930-32) [03:16; 01:54; 03:54]
Nan Hughes, mezzo-soprano; Marsha Heller, oboe; Erik Charlston, percussion; Cheryl Seltzer piano; Continuum; Joel Sachs conductor
rec. Jan 1991, Oct 1992, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, NYC
NAXOS 8.559197 [56:30]

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This is volume 6 in the Continuum series first issued on Musical Heritage Society and now presenting to a world audience with Naxos and their American Classics series. Continuum fascinatingly occupy the revolutionary periphery with collections of Nancarrow, Kirchner, Ives and Cowell amongst others. Who knows perhaps we will have collections of Dane Rudhyar, Carl Ruggles and Leo Ornstein next ... I hope so.

Ruth Crawford Seeger lived and studied in Chicago and there came in contact with Alfred Frankenstein later to become one of America’s most influential music critics. Frankenstein introduced her to the music of the European avant-garde of the 1920s. It was at his hand that she met the poet Carl Sandburg. She was to set many of Sandburg’s poems. On moving to New York in 1929 she met and later married Charles Seeger. Their children were Mike, Peggy, Barbara and Penelope. The famous folk singer Pete Seeger was Charles’ son by his first marriage. Ruth was active in transcribing folksong but there is one short orchestral work, the 1941 Rissolty, Rossolty - what price a recording of that! From 1952 there is a suite for wind quintet.

Seeger's three movement Suite for six instruments employs modest Schoenbergian dissonance in a crepuscular and sometimes chilly idiom. The five wind instruments and piano meld perfectly. The third movement is more sparky and humorous but the levity is bone-yard humour.

From just a few years earlier comes the Violin Sonata in much the same shivering stark idiom although the violin does sing amid the desolation. The central movement has a telling little homunculus dance. The tolling finale looks forward to the bleakness of the Suite especially its first movement and to the Prelude No. 9 from 1928.

The Two Ricercari are songs setting H.T. Tsiang. They are stark and sour with disillusion. These are imbued with protest against social and racial injustice - proselytising songs like the settings of Alan Bush - try Bush’s cycle Voice of the Prophets and the choral finale of his Piano Concerto.

Prelude No. 1 is another moonstruck essay in desolate lunar illumination. The tetchy propulsive Study in Mixed Accents peppers and syncopates its unstoppable way forward - stride piano with malice aforethought. The Diaphonic Suite No. 1 for solo flute takes Debussy's Faune out of the Mediterranean idyll into some peripheral wasteland. The performance by Jayn Rosenfeld is a tour de force.

Seeger marries bassoon with cello in the Diaphonic Suite No. 2 and it's a startlingly good match. Gawky Weill-like humour plays amid the pages. The balance if interest is egalitarian with each instrument sharing the spotlight. This music seems less dissonant than the other works. The Three Songs set poems by Carl Sandburg (who, it will be remembered, was the orator in the premiere of Copland's Lincoln Portrait). These are the most protesting sour and dissonantly challenging works here. They are lit by the variety of Nan Hughes’ voice and by pointillist instrumentation. These are fascinating and provocative settings which show a confident handling of Seeger’s material. The final song is masterful; setting verse about honey bees dwelling in a horse's skull. Sandburg's steely expression and tendency towards the provocatively grotesque is matched by Seeger's richly jewelled instrumental detail. A rewarding setting but not for the faint of heart.

Not for the faint of heart is a pretty good characterisation of this fascinating music. Such a pity the disc did not give us Rissolty, Rossolty, the 1952 wind quintet and the 1931 string quartet.

Rob Barnett

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