Classics of American Romanticism
George Frederick Bristow (1825-1898)
Symphony No.4 Op.50 (1872)
William Henry Fry (1813-1864)
Niagara Symphony (1854)
The Orchestra Now/Leon Botstein
rec. 2022, Fisher Center at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, USA
Bridge 9572 [55]

Liner note writer Kyle Gann makes a strong case for the value and significance of the two works performed here as early examples of the American Symphonic tradition.  Both have been recorded before although Bristow’s substantial Symphony No.4 ‘Arcadian’ has only previously appeared in the late 1960’s in a version which cut around ten minutes from the playing length here of 42:29.  Fry’s Niagara Symphony appeared as part of the Naxos American Classics series in a good performance from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Tony Rowe.

In the opinion of Gann, Bristow’s Arcadian Symphony is “perhaps the best American symphony written before Charles Ives’ First”.  The work was the result of a commission from the Brooklyn Philharmonic but they offered a paltry $100.  Hence Bristow took three pre-existing instrumental movement from his cantata The Pioneer, added a new finale and called the work a symphony.  The Pioneer is Op.49 with the symphony the next work at Op.50.  Actually given this patch-work origin, the symphony does sound and feel like a “real” symphony with the movements strongly contrasted and effective.  Each movement is given a title; “Emigrants’ Journey across the Plains”, “Halt on the Prairie”, “Indian War Dance and Attack by Indians”, “Arrival at the New Home, Rustic Festivities and Dancing”.  Of course the Arcadia eluded to takes no account of the Native Americans who were occupying these lands for thousands of years prior to the immigrant arrivals.  The work was written in 1872 and premiered in New York two years later.  Neither Bristow or Fry trained in Europe and both were passionate supporters of the concept of an authentic form of American expression in orchestral music.  In Europe the early 1870’s saw Wagner working on his Ring cycle, Tchaikovsky writing his early symphonies and beginning Swan Lake while Bruckner was also producing his 3rd and 4th Symphonies.  Brahms’ Symphony No.1 did not appear until 1875.  So while the Germanic model that is audibly present in Bristow’s symphony cannot be denied in fact the work does emerge as strikingly individual and effective.  Kyle Gann’s own carefully transcribed score of the symphony is valuably viewable on IMLSP here.  I assume it is this performing edition that was used for the recording so a big vote of thanks to Gann for all his dedication and hard work.  There are many striking and unusual features in the work from the very opening bar which is given to a solo viola which Gann views as “the lone pioneer starting out on his journey” – which is both evocative and rather beautifully played here.  Indeed the playing on the whole disc by the Advanced Orchestral Studies students who constitute The Orchestra Now is excellent; dynamic and virtuosic, expressive and lyrical as required.  A former violinist in the recently-formed New York Philharmonic, Bristow writes demandingly but effectively for his instrument and The Orchestra Now violins play these passages with considerable panache and flair.  My only observation would be that the actual engineering of the disc results in a slightly synthetic ‘front-desk’ sound with individual instruments/players spotlit in a unnatural manner.  The quality of the playing can take such close attention but it tends to ‘flatten’ the soundstage and make for a kind of latter-day Decca Phase-4 orchestral image.

The movement titles feel rather arbitrary with the effective use of sonata form in the first movement more notable than the scene it seeks to paint.  Likewise the third movement/scherzo “Indian War Dance” is a rather gentile affair although enjoyable as absolute music rather than anything with a particular narrative.  Gann suggests that; “Bristow’s strength lies not in his thematic material, which is unexceptional, but in that he was a born sonata-allegro composer”.  I think that is perhaps a little harsh – his melodies might not be ear-worms but neither are they unappealing.  But certainly his handling of that material is very effective.  The second movement “Halt on the Prairie” features a popular 19th Century American Hymn “All praise to Thee, my God this night” which is initially heard in a simple setting for the brass choir – very beautifully played here indeed.  The way Bristow treats this melody including a rather tricky ‘variation’ for solo violin is again very effective is not particularly profound.  Probably that lack of emotional weight is ultimately the factor that detracts from the work being of enduring individual stature.  The ‘new’ finale that Bristow added is again skilful in its execution but rather generic in terms of content or musical goals – it could represent just about any festive/dance-like movement in any work of this time.  Gann’s admiration in terms of where the piece sits in the evolution of the American symphonic tradition is clearly merited especially in terms of the technical execution of the work – what it lacks is the spark of genius which of course what Ives’ Symphony No.1 undoubtedly does contain in all its quirky individuality.

William Henry Fry’s Niagara Symphony is really not a symphony by any standard measure of the age in which it was written but it is most definitely individual and quirky.  I suspect Fry just chose the title to give the work a perceived “stature” and significance.  In its 12:31 (or 13:45 on Naxos) it aims to recreate a sonic landscape – or waterfallscape I suppose – of the Niagara Falls.  In this Fry is remarkably successful.  He sacrifices any sense of musical structure or thematic development which Bristow worked hard to achieve – but in its place he makes the 19th century orchestra sound remarkably like the mass and roar of the famous falls.  Gann declares that this work is; “surely one of the most avant-garde works of the 19th century.  Along with tubas, ophicleides (bass horns), and bombardones (bass tubas), piece is scored for no fewer than eleven timpani, one for every pitch in the scale except F.”  Gann goes on to explain that Fry sought an actual imitation of the sound of the falls in the orchestra – and to be fair – he succeeds to a notable degree.  Quite how often a listener will want to sit in the comfort of his home and choose to listen to an orchestra pretending to be a waterfall is another matter.

The musical form of the piece is a bit strange – the effective soundscape of the roaring water gives way to a rather banal wind-band type tune (not for the only time I wondered if Berlioz was a source of inspiration).  The actual orchestration of the illustrative sections is actually rather impressive if verging on the overloaded and genuinely quite unlike anything else I can think of dating from 1854 – the year Wagner completed Das Rheingold.  Again this performance is well played and impressively committed.  The Naxos recording is just a degree warmer with the orchestra set further back in the recording environment.  Ultimately I think this allows the various instrumental lines to meld together even more effectively to create the aural illusion of the falls.  The couplings on the Naxos disc are more Fry including his Santa Claus Symphony which is also a definite curio for the collector.

But focussing on this new release, the liner note is valuable and well written, the playing skilled and committed, Botstein’s conducting engaged and energetic all allowing this unusual repertoire to be presented in a very good light.  Between the two composers they wrote twelve symphonies with five having been recorded.  Certainly the quality of the music here makes one interested in hearing more from these artists in this repertoire.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Rob Barnett (March 2023)

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