Bridge Records' American Tone Poems is a collection drawn from the pool of recordings produced in the late '60s by the Society for the Preservation of the American Musical Heritage. The Society's orchestral recordings, all conducted by Karl Krueger and originally issued on LPs, have heretofore not been well treated in the CD era, being mostly disseminated in the form of a cheap and ugly series entitled Our Musical Past that thankfully now itself belongs to the past. Bridge's series does far more to extend to this pioneering group of recordings some measure of the respect it deserves, with appealing cover images, excellent annotation, historic photos, and first-rate audio restoration; the original LPs appeared in plain stock jackets with nothing more than a paper insert for the notes.
Krueger leads the Royal Philharmonic, at the time still Sir Thomas Beecham's orchestra though he had been gone for some years, and there are hints of telltale scrappiness here and there. But the whole SPAMH series was a very low-budget undertaking, involving a great many unfamiliar works recorded at one time after only a few rehearsals. American Tone Poems represents the best sound reproduction these recordings have ever known, in themselves milestones among American classical music recordings and a huge improvement over such labels as SPA and American Recording Society active in the 1950s.
American Tone Poems pulls together works of Louis Coerne, Edward Burlingame Hill, Horatio Parker, and John Alden Carpenter. Of these figures, only Carpenter has assumed some measure of recognition in posterity and Parker is viewed in some circles as a pariah for attempting to contain the musical whirlwind that was his most brilliant student at Yale, Charles Ives. Yet it's Parker's A Northern Ballad, Op. 46, that is in many ways the standout work here; its seriousness of expression, solid technical realization, and mildly expanded harmony (à la Edward MacDowell) results in an orchestral tone poem that holds up a bit better than the stuffy Coerne or fluffy Hill. Carpenter's Sea Drift is a landmark piece in American orchestral composition, and in this work the antique sound of the SPAMH recording is a drawback; one really wants to hear the fine points of Carpenter's assured and atmospheric orchestration, and there are more contemporary alternatives available for this work. Although conspicuously Wagnerian and pretentious in its tone, Coerne's Excalibur, Op. 180, may find adherents from among fanciers of Arthuriana, and Hill's lightweight Stevensoniana Suite No. 1, Op. 24, does have properties of charm, if not substance. Overall, American Tone Poems is a nice introduction to post-Romantic American orchestral music, and these recordings remain the only choices for the Coerne and Hill works.