COMPOSERS: Ruth Crawford Seeger/Charles Seeger
WORKS: Music for Small Orchestra; String Quartet; Three Chants; Suite for Wind Quintet; John Hardy
PERFORMER: Lucy Shelton (soprano), Reinbert de Leeuw (piano); New London Chamber Choir/James Wood; Schönberg Ensemble/Oliver Knussen
CATALOGUE NO: 449 925-2
This is a revelatory collection. Though Ruth Crawford’s masterpiece, the String Quartet, has long been available on disc to anyone diligent enough to seek it out, the other works are hardly known at all. Born in 1901, she established herself on the radical wing of American music in the Twenties – alongside Cowell, Ives and Ruggles – with a string of remarkable small-scale pieces. However, after her marriage to Charles Seeger in 1931, she became a prime mover in the folk music revival, only returning to writing concert works just before her death in 1953.
The String Quartet, with its tightly structured lyricism and dark intensity, is rightly at the centre of this disc, with the later version of its Andante, for string orchestra. Rissolty Rossolty provides an example of her folk arrangements, while the Suite for Wind Quintet shows how she attempted to integrate folk material with the modernism that came so instinctively to her. But it’s the early works that astonish most. Music for Small Orchestra achieves a raw, baleful power with just a few instruments; the brief Study in Mixed Accents seems to prefigure the energy and rhythmic freedom of Nancarrow’s player-piano studies; and the Three Songs show how Crawford explored the idea of ‘dissonant counterpoint’ she acquired from Seeger, and a form of serialism very different to Schoenbergian orthodoxy. These performances, supervised and conducted by Oliver Knussen, do full justice to this remarkable body of work. Andrew Clements