GRUENBERG:  Symphony No. 2, Op. 43.  "Marcia" from Serenade to a Beauteous Lady.  The Enchanted Isle, Op. 11
Czech National Symphony Orch/Paul Freeman, cond.

ALBANY TROY 467 (F) (DDD) TT:  51:17

Louis Gruenberg (1884-1964), born in Russia in 1884, was only two years old when he was brought to the United States by his parents.After studying with Busoni, he began his pianistic musical career and began composing as well. When twenty-nine a symphonic poem won a prize with a symphonic poem and focused on a composing career—with limited success. However, he was active in administrative musical areas, one of the founders of the League of Composers in 1923 and he headed the composition department at the Chicago Musical College from 1933 to 1936, after which he moved to California. Gruenberg's works include a number of operas, in particular The Emperor Jones, premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1932 featuring baritone Lawrence Tibbett and conducted by Tullio Serafin. There were four performances that season, met with mixed reviews; Emperor also was given several times the following season. There was a revival in Rome in 1950, but Emperor Jones seems not to be of sufficient interest for today's opera presenters/audiences. Apparently the opera is rather short; at the Met it was followed by I Pagliacci. (In those days even Elektra had a companion, often Rossini's Il Signor Bruschino!).  Gruenberg was commissioned to write a violin concerto for Jascha Heifetz in 1943; even the master violinist's advocacy couldn't insure a life for the work, although he did make a recording (see REVIEW). Gruenberg also composed various other orchestral works, chamber music and four volumes of spiritual harmonizations. 

This CD gives premiere recordings of three Gruenberg works, funded partially by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia.  The major work is Symphony No. 2, Op. 43 composed in 1943, revised in 1959 and 1963 but not performed until 1965.  The first section ("A broad expansive movement") is the longest (11:43), followed by the second ("Langsam und aushaltend") and third ("Fantasievoll").  Why these two are identified in German is not explained.  Serenade to a Beauteous Lady was composed in 1934.  "Marcia," heard here, is the last of five sections (the others are Polonaise, Galop, Valse and Allegretto). The Enchanted Isle is the second of a series of tone-poems written during the First World War "in an attempt to make a world somewhat pleasanter than the one existing then."  Isle  was first performed in Massachusetts in 1929 and was awarded the second American prize in the International Schubert Centennial Contest sponsored by the Columbia Phonograph Company.  The composer revised the work in 1933.

Listening to these works is a rather frustrating experience.  There is no question that Gruenberg knows the orchestra; however he has little memorable to say.  There are little snippets of ideas appearing profusely in both the symphony and tone-poem, often momentarily appealing but little is done with them. Melodic invention does not seem to be a part of Gruenberg's style.  I've listened four times to this CD and little remains in the mind. There's nothing here to match the originality -- and tunes -- written by George Antheil or George Frederick McKay, to mention just two other American composers of the same era. The Czech Orchestra under Paul Freeman's direction does well with what obviously is totally unfamiliar repertory. The recordings were made September 1999 - March 2001 in ICN Recording Studios in Prague with Jan Kotzmann as Chief Engineer.  The sound does not flatter the performances; it is unresonant; even the bass drum in the odd March that is part of the Serenade doesn't have much impact.  It is admirable that we have the opportunity to hear this music to know what it sounds like.  Speaking of Gruenberg, Carleton Sprague Smith said in The New Grove Dictionary of Music, "If he left no masterpiece, several of his works are fine expressions of his time and place."  He was being rather kind.