FRY:  Santa Claus, Christmas Symphony.  Overture to Macbeth. Niagara Symphony.  The Breaking Heart.
Royal Scottish National Orch/Tony Rowe, cond.

NAXOS 8.559057 (B) (DDD) TT:  61:13

Naxos continues to explore unusual repertory in its American Classics series,  here offering world premiere recordings of music of William Henry Fry, who was born in Philadelphia in 1813 and died in 1864 in Santa Cruz.  He has many "firsts" to his credit.  According to Naxos' notes, Fry was the first native-born American to write for a large symphonic orchestra, the first music critic for a major newspaper and the first "vociferously" to push American support for American music.  He also was the first to write a grand opera (Leonora), successfully presented in Philadelphia in 1845 and New York in 1858.  He spent six years in Europe (1846-1862) as music and culture correspondent for several major American newspapers.  Active both as a musician and lecturer, he died apparently from tuberculosis accelerated by exhaustion brought on by his whirlwind schedule.

The 26-minute Santa Claus, Christmas Symphony, composed in 1853, is hardly the "tightly constructed drama full of heady drawing-room romanticism" suggested by Kile Smith's notes.  Fry called it "the longest instrumental composition ever written on a single subject, with unbroken continuity." The Jullien Orchestra, not otherwise identified, toured the United States often playing Fry's music.   This was a virtuoso ensemble, reflected in many instrumental solos written to display their talents.  This is the first symphonic use anywhere of the just-invented saxophone. Santa Claus has a descriptive program beginning with the Saviour's birth followed by an interlude with angels, a Christmas Eve party, a snowstorm, a double-bass solo representing a lost traveler, arrival of Santa Claus on a horse-drawn sleigh, and Christmas morning as children awaken, with Adeste fidelis, appearing for the second time in the score.  This "symphony" is pleasant enough but rather slight on imagination.  Fry's "sleigh ride" is low-energy at best, and he often resorts to highly repetitive ascending/descending scales, particularly for the strings. 

Niagra Symphony, composed for an 1854 P.T. Barnum "Monster Concert,"  was not performed until these recording sessions in August 1999.  Notes call it a "travelogue piece" that is "extravagantly panoramic." Searching for sensational impact, Fry's scoring includes eleven timpani (could he have heard the Berlioz Requiem (composed in 1837) with its sixteen timps?)  A quiet introspective section  separates the tumultuous opening and closing of this 13-minute work.  Roaring waters are depicted by  rapid scale string passages (over and over), the power of the Falls by strong brass chords and timpani. 

Brass also figures prominently in the Overture to Macbeth, another work not played until this recording was made.  According to CD notes, this overture is "arguably Fry's best work," composed in 1864, the year of his  death.  Heavy brass chords describe the play's action quite majestically. Ending the program is The Breaking Heart, a ten-minute old-fashioned Adagio which, according to Smith's notes, contains "longing trombones, willowy strings" and a "bubbling coloratura flute solo," "teaming with melodrama and lovely tunes."  Well, not quite.  Heart, like other music on this CD, is a period piece often sounding like music the Salvation Army might play.

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra sounds a bit understaffed, but plays well under Tony Rowe's direction.  Tim Handley, identified as producer and engineer, has provided a clear sound devoid of sensational sonic outbursts one might expect with multiple timpani. Another recent CD in Naxos' American Classics series, a Morton Gould collection produced by Victor and Marina A. Ledin, engineered by Andrij Mokrytsky, is a sonic blockbuster (8.559005).  This new collection, from a sound standpoint, is not in that league.  Still, Naxos is to be commended for making this music available.

R.E.B. (FEB. 2001)