Sonata for Violin and Piano. – Review

Sonata for Violin and Piano. – Review – sound recording reviews

Wayne Schneider

Ruth Crawford. Sonata for Violin and Piano. Ida Kavafian, violin; Vivian Fine, piano. Piano Study in Mixed Accents. Joseph Bloch, piano. Nine Preludes for Piano. Joseph Bloch, piano. Diaphonic Suite for Solo Flute or Oboe. Joseph Ostryniec, oboe. Three Songs to Poems by Carl Sandburg. Patricia Berlin, mezzo-soprano; Paul Hoffman, piano; Dan Armstrong, percussion. Suite for Wind Quintet. The Lark Quintet (John Wion, flute; Arthur Bloom, clarinet; Humbert Lucarelli, oboe; Howard T. Howard, horn; Alan Brown, bassoon). Liner notes by Judith Tick. 1993. Composers Recordings Inc. CD 658.

CRI American Masters produces “digitally remastered recordings from the historic CRI catalogue of American music” and, with this new Ruth Crawford (1901-53) CD, offers six works gathered from four previously issued CRI recordings. Once and for all, this CD anthology should enlarge the view of Crawford: in addition to her important collections and arrangements of folk songs, she was a composer of many works as fine as her famous String Quartet (1931).

The compositions on this CD date from 1924 to 1952, beginning with the Nine Preludes for Piano (nos. 1-5 from 1924-25; nos. 6-9 from 1927-28). These little gems of impressionistic dissonance deserve to be performed more frequently. Judith Tick, author of both the notes that accompany this recording and a prize-winning biography of Crawford, calls these pieces mystical “interval studies,” and notes that the ninth prelude was inspired by a poem of Chinese philosopher Lao-Tse. The preludes are brooding, reflective miniatures, occasionally jazzy, and wonderfully pianistic. Their range of emotion is impressive, and their figuration reveals a fertile musical imagination. This is pianists’ music, no doubt, and Joseph Bloch plays with steel and grace.

Tick calls the Sonata for Violin and Piano (1926) an example of Crawford’s “post-tonal explorations” and “transcendental modernism,” citing influences of Theosophy, Eastern mysticism, American transcendentalism, and Scriabin. The work is cast in exemplary 1920s ultramodern style: high passion and unrelenting, uncompromising dissonance. (No concluding triads in this piece!) The performers are superb. Violinist Ida Kavafian and pianist-composer Vivian Fine play with fire and conviction. The sound is very “close up” and exciting: one hears the performers’ breathing and Kavafian’s bow digging into the strings.

Study in Mixed Accents (1930) for piano is a one-minute killer etude at breakneck speed. Serial procedures for pitch, register, and accents give the work’s sprung dissonant melody–always in octaves, perpetuum mobile, all over the keyboard–its angular swing. Pianist Bloch goes for broke–almost loses control in a spot or two–but the effect is reckless and thrilling. A spectacular encore piece.

Diaphonic Suite for Solo Flute or Oboe (1930), played here by oboist Joseph Ostryniec, is a tour de force for that instrument. As in the Study, serial procedures mark jagged dissonant melodies, rhythm, and register. Perhaps Crawford was thinking of not only diaphonia, dissonance, but also diaphone, a reed stop on theater organs. Ostryniec gives a seemingly effortless reading.

Three Songs to Poems by Carl Sandburg (1930-32) for contralto, oboe, percussion, and optional wind and string ostinati (not on this recording) captures perfectly the tough midwestern accent in Sandburg’s verse. Tick writes about the work’s “bravura displays of serial organization mixed with free material.” Easily heard are the grim humor in “Rat Riddles”; the hard, layered, machined rhythms in “Prayers of Steel”; and the Whitmanesque huge metaphors and unanswered questions in “In Tall Grass.” Singer Patricia Berlin is occasionally crowded out by the percussion, but her performance is definitive. Pianist Paul Hoffman and percussionist Dan Armstrong are able accompanists.

After 1938, Crawford occupied herself with transcribing and editing folk melodies from field recordings and making arrangements of American folk songs for children. The Suite for Wind Quintet (1952), performed here by the Lark Quintet, is a delightful bonus: a work of the 1950s when Crawford returned to original composition. It is one of her last works; she died in 1953. The quintet is very sure-handed composition, even though the dissonance is more relaxed than her earlier works (still uncompromisingly atonal, however!), and the lyrical lines (especially in the second movement) bigger and warmer. The first and last movements are musical wind-up toys: ostinatos layered upon ostinatos with mechanistic humor. The middle movement is an elegaic rhapsody as moving as anything she wrote. Perhaps the Suite sounded old in the 1950s, but in it Crawford came full circle and ended her musical vision.

The disc’s remastering is excellent, but the notes are marred by typos and production mistakes. Judith Tick’s biography of Ruth Crawford, the new edition of her Suite No. 2 for Four Strings and Piano (1929), and Music for Small Orchestra (1929) in the MUSA series, and this CD sampler bode well for this important and too long neglected composer.

Wayne Schneider

University of Vermont

COPYRIGHT 1999 University of Illinois Press

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group