A disc of instrumental music by Stephen Foster might seem to have all the appeal of one of piano music by Verdi. Text and music are indissoluble in his work, as he cleverly manipulated ethnic stereotyping -- one of the backbones of American culture -- in each realm. But the contents of this release are bona-fide Foster, and would have been quite widely played in just this way in the nineteenth century. Much of the music comes from an 1846 collection called The Social Orchestra for which Foster not only arranged his own tunes but also composed some new instrumental music. There's nothing to rewrite the Foster greatest-hits list here, but there are a few finds. Anadolia, track 6, is a solo flute piece aptly described by a writer quoted in the notes as sounding like a cross between a Bellini aria and Old Folks at Home.
In general, the Foster works gain effectiveness as they approach his songs more closely. Flutist Paula Robison, who has performed Brazilian vernacular styles along with Mozart and the other pillars of the classical flute repertory, has an undeniable knack for a great pop melody; her versions of Beautiful Dreamer and the final My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night are arresting. She also does well in the entr'acte: a set of six dreamy pieces by poet Sidney Lanier. Lanier, an admirer of German Romanticism, was a fair flutist who dabbled in composition. These works, which feature such themes as birdsong, wander a bit but aren't derivative of anything; it's valuable on many fronts to have them on disc. The various Foster dance pieces are like many others written in the middle of the century -- pleasant enough, but without the groundbreaking qualities of his songs. Still, these too are useful to have on a contemporary recording (historical re-enactors might want to make note of them), and this disc will find a place in many public and personal libraries.