Reuben Blundell & Gowanus Arts Ensemble: American Romantics
New Focus Recordings

Reuben Blundell & Gowanus Arts Ensemble: American Romantics II
New Focus Recordings

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.

January 2018