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Santa Claus Symphony
Overture to Macbeth
Niagra Symphony
The Breaking Heart

Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Tony Rowe
Recorded 1999
NAXOS 8.559057 [Total playing time 61.13]

Now no can accuse me of resisting any attempt to explore or revive forgotten masterpieces or even mediocrities. I've conducted Bruch, Spohr, Stenhammar, Dyson, Whitlock, Cliffe, and so on but frankly I think I would have put William Henry Fry on the discard pile at once if I'd had the chance to peruse the score. He was born in Philadelphia in 1813, died in 1864 and is credited with being the first native-born American to write for large symphonic forces and a grand opera. He spent the years 1846-1852 in Europe, and fell for Italian opera with its bel canto style, best illustrated on this disc by the final piece The Breaking Heart. The plain truth of the matter, however, is that you could listen to the whole disc as one work in four movements rather than four one-movement pieces.

The Santa Claus Symphony, though programmatic, still requires a written explanation (a contradiction in terms; Beethoven's Pastoral needs nothing more than movement titles, if that) to clarify all the incidents it is supposed to depict. There's a feeling that it's all going to break out into a Sousa march when the exultant brass are in full cry, the harmonic language is unadventurously diatonic or overly melodramatic with endless diminished sevenths. There are virtuosic cadenzas for various instruments which promise better than what often follows (after the one for clarinet we nearly get diverted to Sullivan's duet 'There is beauty in the bellow of the blast' from The Mikado - though to be fair to Fry he was 32 years ahead of Sir Arthur!). Much of the problems lie in overkill, Fry doesn't know when to stop labouring a rhythm or harmony. Still there are some fascinating ideas which were certainly pioneering ones for the day: After the Xmas party we get a wordless (thank God, no celestial choir) Lord's Prayer chord by syllabic chord in the strings followed by 'Rock-a-by-Baby' on the soprano saxophone, with the baby's breathing mimicked by the accompanying strings. Into all this stumbles some poor lost traveller (solo double bass) who perishes in a snowstorm, though quite why, or who he is, is never explained. At last Santa arrives, but no rotund Ho! Ho! Ho! he on the tuba to get stuck in the chimney - no he is a rather high-flying bassoon, whip-cracking-away at poor old Rudolph. A fleeting visit, a quick slide down the chimney and just time enough to drop off the toys on the unsuspecting (and still heavy-breathing child) before a shimmering Adeste Fidelis (O come all ye faithful) brings the whole thing to a grand apotheosis with much repetition of what we've already heard with the curious addition of Little Bo-Peep (what's she doing here?). The RSNO do their best but it's a pretty uphill task despite Tony Rowe's evident belief in it all.

The Macbeth overture is predictably full of melodrama (real silent movie stuff) which Verdi of course (about 15 years earlier than Fry ) did better than anyone. Still, there's good writing for the brass chorus and Rowe encourages a splendidly burnished sound. The tricky high string writing tests the players, more success in the chattering winds sounding like Rossini or Donizetti. Niagra gets given the full aquatic treatment, after an ominously threatening start the falls thunder down with eleven (yes, eleven) timpani, the strings scales cascading up and down for all they are worth.

Certainly a curiosity worth a hearing, and I admit to adding another star upon listening to Santa Claus a second time - so give it a try. I imagine the title will attract a lot of attention to amateur orchestras seeking popular Xmas programmes, but I suspect that it will prove far too difficult to play and not really be worth the effort.

Christopher Fifield 



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