Rebecca Miller, Conductor Rebecca Miller, Conductor Rebecca Miller, Conductor Rebecca Miller, Conductor Rebecca Miller, Conductor Rebecca Miller, Conductor Rebecca Miller, Conductor Rebecca Miller, Conductor Rebecca Miller, Conductor
Rebecca Miller, Conductor
Review of Bristow's 'Jullien Symphony'

Conductor Rebecca Miller and the Royal Northern Sinfonia should be commended for choosing to perform from Katherine K. Preston’s magisterial critical edition of Bristow’s symphony, published as part of the Music in the United States of America series, which I have reviewed elsewhere.

Unlike the old Krueger record, Miller’s performance is simply stunning and gives the work the fair trial that Bristow and his compatriots argued they deserved. Miller and the orchestra scrupulously follow tempo instructions, dynamic markings and articulations, while finding sufficient breathing room for artistic interpretation. The string players in particular perform with a spiritedness that translates into succulent resonance during tender moments and gritty (but most welcome) sounds of committed bow strokes in fast passages. My experience was marred only by a condensed volume range seemingly added at later stages of editing. This small quibble aside, the combination of a masterful critical edition with diligent, passionate musicians is a model for this type of collaborative endeavour.

The disc opens with an aggressively brisk interpretation of the first movement’s Allegro appassionato tempo marking – a distinct departure from the Royal Philharmonic’s plodding. Cast in the standard sonata form (minus a slow introduction), the movement contains a mysterious opening theme stated first in the cellos and bassoons and a tender, more lyrical secondary theme. Articulating the form well, the players change character abruptly at the onset of the second theme (bar 82, 1:36), displaying the score’s delicate colouration. Miller follows the standard repeat of the exposition. The movement’s development section marked a significant maturation for Bristow, who literally notated each local tonic with new key signatures in the development of his previous symphony. In the new work, by contrast, Bristow reworked several thematic areas of the exposition, including both main melodies as well as transitional passages, with greater skill and creativity. The atmospheric rendering of the motivic material at 8:42 of the recording is especially noteworthy, as is the trombone solo (bars 245–253) – an unusual timbre. The trombone returns at the onset of the recapitulation, providing a countermelody to the primary theme, given again here by the cellos. The secondary theme returns in D major before the movement closes with the aggressive character of the opening. Excellent musicianship – from composer, conductor and players alike – continues in the symphony’s later movements: a polka-like dance, a succulent theme and variations and a brooding finale in . As a veteran orchestral player himself, Bristow had a keen ear for instrumentation and texture that is especially noticeable in the middle movements. The third ‘strain’ of the polka (rehearsal C, pickup to bar 73, 1:33), for example, begins with full woodwind choir but is soon followed by interesting imitative string counterpoint accompanied by pulsating clarinets. Likewise, in the middle of the third movement (bar 88ff, 5:05ff), Bristow created kaleidoscopic changes of texture by rescoring rhythmically dense layers of accompaniment, usually in the strings. This passage is highly reminiscent of moments in the slow movement of Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony (‘Scottish’), but Bristow’s facility and creativity with orchestral colour is abundantly evident.

Finally, it is worth noting that Bristow attempted to forge a place in the symphonic tradition with techniques that include cyclic integration (a solo trombone appears through the work, as do reminiscences of the first movement’s opening theme) and the use of a mock ‘choral’ finale – here with a coda marked Grandioso that follows an extended ‘grand pause’.

Miller and the orchestra communicate these fundamental structural components of the work with exceptional clarity. Bristow directed his attention toward music for the stage in the years just following Jullien’s departure.

Both of the overtures on the recording were in fact functional numbers rather than standalone pieces. The Rip Van Winkle overture opened Bristow’s grand opera, which he based loosely on the story written by Washington Irving. The Pyne and Harrison troupe, known for its performances of operas in English, premiered the opera in 1855.

Likewise, as Preston explains in her liner notes, The Winter’s Tale overture served as the ‘curtain-raiser for a new production of Shakespeare’s play, mounted at Burton’s Theatre on Broadway in February 1856’ (p. 9). Bristow had developed his chops as a violinist playing in theatre orchestras alongside his father, a clarinettist, and these two works demonstrate Bristow’s flexibility as a musician within the diversified environment of New York City at mid-century.

Both pieces are suitably dramatic, and Miller again finds the right character for each. The Rip Van Winkle Overture has a slow three-part introduction followed by a rollicking sonata-allegro in . Bristow’s scoring tends to be heavier here, with tremolo strings and full brass choirs adding a level of sonic depth not found in the symphony. The Winter’s Tale Overture, by contrast, is sectional in form and sug- gests various scenes in Shakespeare’s play. The solo woodwinds and brass of the Royal Northern Sinfonia are on target in the recording and offer the vividness of colouration that these theatrical pieces require. A march-like section featuring the piccolo and side drum in The Winter’s Tale Overture (c. 5:50) is especially effective. The orchestra convinces me that either work could be a programme opener in today’s concert halls in place of more famous overtures by Rossini and Berlioz, such as those to Semiramide or Benvenuto Cellini.

... 'to do our part to secure the full legacy of nineteenth-century American classical music, I recommend buying both outstanding discs.'

Douglas Shadle, Vanderbilt University, Nineteenth-Century Music Review
Back to List
Back to Top