“American Romantics II” is the second volume in a project initiated by conductor Reuben Blundell after he discovered several scores for string orchestra through the Fleisher Collection. These scores were all composed by American composers from the the last decades of the 19th century, both native born and recently immigrated. "American Romantics" presents the premiere recordings of these pieces, some of which draw on Americana melodies while others reflect the prevailing Central European compositional style of the day.
|01||Old Folks at Home|
Old Folks at Home
Suite RococoFélix Borowski
|03||Air à Danser|
Air à Danser
Two PiecesFélix Borowski
|08||Theme & Variations|
Theme & Variations
|09||Wiegenlied (Cradle Song)|
Wiegenlied (Cradle Song)
|10||La Guitare (Pierrot et Pierrete)|
La Guitare (Pierrot et Pierrete)
|12||The lingac Boatsong|
The lingac Boatsong
|13||In der Einsamkeit (In Solitude)|
In der Einsamkeit (In Solitude)
|17||To a Vanishing Race|
To a Vanishing Race
|18||My Old Kentucky Home|
My Old Kentucky Home
|19||Sanssouci, Menuet (Bonus Track, New Focus only)|
Sanssouci, Menuet (Bonus Track, New Focus only)
|20||Elegy (Bonus Track, New Focus only)|
Elegy (Bonus Track, New Focus only)
These world-premiere recordings are the second in conductor Reuben Blundell’s series promoting music by American composers, from the rich but underrepresented (at least in performance) music of the late 19th and 20th century. Some of these composers were born in America. Others, from Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, and the Netherlands, joined and influenced the musical life of their adopted country. Beyond these string orchestra works lie tantalizing, and mostly obscured, catalogs of compositions including operas, tone poems, symphonies, chamber music and songs.
Blundell unearthed these pieces from the rich troves of the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. The Fleisher Collection is the world’s largest lending library of orchestral performance material, lending to performing organizations worldwide. Alongside virtually the entire standard repertoire, it houses many rare and out-of-print works, with a current collection of over 22,000 titles and growing. Among them are two warm arrangements of iconic Stephen Foster songs by Kansas City based, Czech born Carl Busch and an extended Theme and Variations by Arthur Foote, who, among other distinctions, holds the honor of being the first recipient of a graduate degree in composition in the United States. The album’s program is balanced between natives of the United States (Foote, George Whitfield Chadwick, Ethelbert Nevin, Edgar Stillman Kelley, Arthur Bird, Charles Wakefield Cadman) and Europeans who became U.S. immigrants (Busch, Félix Borowski, Paul Miersch, Martinus van Gelder, Bernardus Boekelman, and Louis Lombard). In this way, these works are an ideal snapshot of the nascent musical community in the United States at the turn of the century — a moment in time that witnessed the gradual emergence of what flowered later into a rich American compositional tradition, through the different strains of Horatio Parker, Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, and eventually John Cage, Morton Feldman, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Lou Harrison, Ben Johnston, and countless others.
Conductor Reuben Blundell has performed a great service in bringing an underexposed, one might even say neglected, collection of classical works to the public's attention. If calling the material neglected seems an exaggeration, consider that all but two of the pieces on the inaugural American Romantics set are world premieres—and not of works composed a year or two ago but during the last decades of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth. Suffice it to say, had the two American Romantics volumes not been produced, it's possible that its music and the composers responsible for it would have continued to languish in obscurity, if not in time vanish altogether. And what a shame that would be when the material is so rewarding.
Blundell came to the project after discovering several string orchestra scores in the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia (at more than 22,000 titles, the Collection is the world's largest lending library of orchestral performance material), scores that bore the signature of native-born American composers and recent immigrants (from France, Germany, Switzerland, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Denmark) from the waning days of the nineteenth century. The music audibly reflects the influence of a European Romantic style, but it also exudes a distinctly American character, with some pieces drawing on Native American themes and folk songs. As one listens to these captivating volumes, a compelling American voice emerges.
Both releases feature Blundell guiding the Gowanus Arts Ensemble, a ten-member outfit (five violins, two violas, two cellos, one bass), through set-lists featuring composers whose names might be unfamiliar but whose works consistently charm. Make no mistake: they're harmonious pieces that are worlds removed from the atonal works that emerged during the first half of the twentieth century, and it's easy to picture a string orchestra perched on an opulent American estate's balcony and performing these melodious miniatures for guests mingling on sunlit grounds.
The first volume presents works by nine composers, with Carl Busch represented by three pieces, two of them, the “Omaha Indian Love Song” and “Chippewa Lullaby” (both from Four North American Legends), inspired by Native American music. The former's a thing of beauty, a plaintive and touching ballad the string ensemble renders with heartfelt conviction. Its rising melodic figures might remind one of Mahler or Wagner; truth be told it wouldn't be far wrong to call this stirring song an adagio in miniature, and much the same also could be said of Busch's haunting “Elegie.”
Delicate too is Ludwig Bonvin's “Christmas Night's Dream,” which plays like some peaceful idyll, but the volume's focus isn't delicate reveries only. Eugène Arcade Dédé's represented by the appropriately titled “Bees and Bumblebees” (its cellos veritably buzz through the arrangement), its opus number 562 signifying the vast quantity of music this ultra-prolific composer produced. “Pleasant memories” by Dresden-born Paul Miersch feels sprightly when pizzicato playing strengthens its jaunty character, as do respective scherzos by Horatio Parker and Henry Schoenefeld when the ensemble executes their breezy pulses with poise and precision. Two of the volume's most charming pieces come from Bostonian Arthur Foote, whose endearingly expressive “Air” and “Gavotte” originally appeared as the second and fifth movements in his Serenade for Strings.
The second volume forms a natural complement to the first, not only in perpetuating the first's character but in again including material by Busch, Miersch, and Foote. The project's American dimension is even more explicitly referenced in the follow-up when Busch arrangements of Stephen Foster's“Old Folks at Home” and “My Old Kentucky Home” bookend the release. The former, with its famous “Swanee River” melody, sets a warm tone for the volume, while the latter caps the set on an equally stirring note, the Gowanus Arts Ensemble's sensitive playing splendidly attuned to each song's mood.
Like the first collection, the second offsets lively pieces such as Martinus van Gelder's “The Lingac Boatsong” and Arthur Bird's “Gavotte” with tender lullabies, Miersch's winsome “Wiegenlied (Cradle Song),” Louis Lombard's “Élégie” (which he dedicated to Leoncavallo, the composer of I Pagliacci), and Charles Wakefield Cadman's “To a Vanishing Race” three of the prettiest. At eleven minutes, Foote's ambitious “Theme & Variations” towers over the others, most of which range between two to five minutes, while a three-movement suite by Northern England-born Félix Borowski sees the ensemble move from the graceful dance rhythms of “Caprice Pompadour” to the elegance of the “Passepied,” the Chicago expatriate also well-represented by the gentle reverie “Crépuscule (Sunset).”
On both releases, Blundell also acts as an historian by providing in-depth background on the pieces themselves and mini-bios of the composers, and consequently one comes away from the project with a much deeper appreciation of the music presented and the period out of which it developed. Further to that, the recordings also illuminate in connecting the dots between these turn-of-the-century works and the American compositional tradition associated with Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, and others that evolved out of it. Each release succeeds as a single volume, but this is a case where the release is best regarded as a two-volume package—or three if the forthcoming third volume, this one featuring works performed by the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra, is included.
— Ron Schepper, textura, 1.2018
American Romantics II – Premiere Recordings of Turn of the Century Works for String Orchestra is a fascinating second CD in a series created by New York conductor Reuben Blundell promoting under-represented American music from the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th (New Focus Recordings FCR 166B). Blundell conducts the Gowanus Arts Ensemble, a group of NYC freelancers assembled specifically for the project. The short works are all world premiere recordings, and for some of the composers it’s the first time any of their music has appeared on disc. There are 15 works here by 12 different composers: those represented are the English-born Félix Borowski; George Whitefield Chadwick; Arthur Foote; the German-born Paul Theodore Miersch; Ethelbert Nevin; Edgar Stillman Kelley; the Dutch-born Martinus van Gelder and Bernardus Boekelman; the French-born Louis Lombard; Arthur Bird; and Charles Wakefield Cadman. The Danish-born Carl Busch’s arrangements of two Stephen Foster songs open and close the CD. The music is much of its time, as you would expect, but is no less accomplished and attractive for that; Lombard’s Puccini-esque Élégie is particularly lovely. The string ensemble is only ten players, but sounds much fuller and richer in simply lovely performances. An extremely attractive digi-pak complements an original and highly satisfying release. — Terry Robbins, The Whole Note, 2.2018
Turn-of-the-century America liked to see itself in its arts as both simple and ineffable, occupying in its drams and in its dreams a natural landscape fashioned and improved by humankind for its pastoral pleasure, along with the virtues of hearth, family, home and community in an ideal cast. Reality was in part these things but then all sorts of complexities and ambiguities, even in downright contradiction, namely its industrial juggernaut, inequalities, and the struggle towards Modernity that was to become paramount in a few years, but at first a direction only lurking in the woolgathered brown studiousness of future artists.
The freeze frame of a land poised to change rapidly yet still seeing itself with the lens of an ideal past can be heard in a volume of short works by the composers stylistically prior to the bold Charles Ives. They were roughly contemporaneous with each other in an overall field that Charles Ives found himself reacting with and against when he first came upon the scene. It helps us to hear and contemplate the Romantic matrix out of which sprang American Modernity. Plus it is music worthy of a hearing on its own terms. And it helps us more fully to grasp American Neo-Romantics like Samuel Barber who were to appear in the wake of these artists.
And so we have a volume directly relevant to such concerns, American Romantics II (New Focus Recordings FCR 166B). It is a worthy grouping of short examples performed devotedly by the Gowanus Arts Ensemble under Reuben Blundell. There is a serenity and transparent depth to these performances that seem just right. Nothing becomes mawkish as perhaps some earlier recorded versions could. Even the bookend Carl Busch arrangements of Stephen Foster songs are luminous and reverently staged.
Beyond the surprisingly moving Foster arrangements we are treated to softly glowing works by the likes of Felix Borowski, George Whitfield Chadwick, Arthur Foote, Paul Theodore Miersch, Ethelbert Nevin, Edgar Stillman Kelly, Martinus Van Gelder, Bernardus Boekelman. Louis Lombard, Arthur Bird, Charles Wakefield Cadman Not all of these names you will know, I suspect, and some you will. Yet taken all together we get a true representative example of what the first end-point of American Romanticism might sound like in retrospect.
And the strings have a way about them that is almost early-music-like in their very retrained vibratoes and the plaintive matter-of-factness of it all. The sort of brio vibrato madness with which these works might have been performed some years ago disappears to be replaced by performances that are so much more convincing.
In the end we are given the chance to re-experience these works anew. For me anyway I feel like there is a new life to this music here. It is much more congenial and even touching to hear these somewhat naive pastoral works the way Gowanus and Blundell approach them. Bravo!
— Grego Applegate Edwards, Gapplegate Classical Modern Music Review, 2.8.2018
A release on the New Focus Recordings label is the second in a series of recordings featuring works for string orchestra from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, performed by the Gowanus Arts Ensemble and conductor Reuben Blundell. All of the featured composers were either born in America, or were born in Europe and eventually relocated to the United States. The scores of the featured string orchestra works were provided courtesy of the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. According to the liner notes: “The Fleischer Collection is the world’s largest lending library of orchestral performance material, lending to performing organizations worldwide.” The collection includes “many rare and out-of-print works.” As in American Romantics I, all of the selections are billed as world premiere recordings. The names of such composers as George Whitefield Chadwick, Arthur Foote, and Charles Wakefield Cadman (and, of course Stephen Foster) will be known to those with an interest in American composers of the period. The others, as the liner notes make clear, also made significant contributions to American musical life. The recording opens and closes with familiar songs by Stephen Foster, Old Folks at Home and My Old Kentucky Home, “reimagined” by the Danish-born composer Carl Busch. Each is a brief fantasia on the Foster song, with the melody always readily apparent. These tuneful, lyrical pieces are appropriate bookends for the remaining selections. They all are in a conventional, even conservative, style one might hear from any number of European composers of the era. The experimental, iconoclastic American spirit exemplified by Charles Ives is far removed from the scene. That said, all of the featured composers exhibit a gift for melody, and for writing in styles that are both highly accessible and attractive. Given the shared lyrical approach of the works, I think they fare better when appreciated individually, rather than heard collectively in one sitting.
The Gowanus Arts Ensemble (here comprising five violins, pairs of violas and cellos, and a single bass) and conductor Reuben Blundell acquit themselves in admirable fashion, playing with lovely tone, precision of ensemble, and a palpable affection for the music. The recording, made in Douglass Studios in Brooklyn, offers a realistic concert hall perspective, and an admirable synthesis of warmth and definition. The liner notes offer a wealth of detail on the various composers and works. No doubt this is a nThe Gowanus Arts Ensemble (here comprising five violins, pairs of violas and cellos, and a single bass) and conductor Reuben Blundell acquit themselves in admirable fashion, playing with lovely tone, precision of ensemble, and a palpable affection for the music. The recording, made in Douglass Studios in Brooklyn, offers a realistic concert hall perspective, and an admirable synthesis of warmth and definition. The liner notes offer a wealth of detail on the various composers and works. No doubt this is a niche release, but one that offers the opportunity to hear several lovely works and provides a welcome snapshot of musical life in America during the later Romantic era.
© Ken Meltzer, 5.2018 Fanfare