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CLASSICAL  January 2008

CLASSICAL January 2008

Subject:

Cakes and Ale from Serebrier

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 17 Jan 2008 17:11:36 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (104 lines)

Jose Serebrier

*  Symphony No. 2 (Partita) (1958)
*  Fantasia for Strings (1960)
*  Sonata for Violin Solo (1948)
*  Winterreise (1999)

Gonzalo Acosta (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Jose Serebrier
Naxos 8.559303  Total time: 60:21

Summary for the Busy Executive: Ex-prodigy.

Conductor and composer Jose Serebrier has always worn the mantle of
precociousness about him.  At fifteen, he led his first orchestra.  In
his early twenties, he became one of Stokowski's assistants and, with
two others, helped the master conduct the historic premiere recording
of the Ives Fourth Symphony.  He was also one of the first to record
that score all by himself.  He became Composer-in-Residence of the
Cleveland Orchestra and an assistant to Szell not long after.  As
astonishing as that might sound, he matured even faster as a composer,
as you can tell from the dates above and knowing that he was born in
1938.  He has had a solid, though not spectacular conducting career,
mainly on recording, and that career has overshadowed his composition.

What does a prodigy do once his youth has flown?  He no longer has
great potential.  He either fulfills it or disappoints it to some degree
or another.  Almost every work here comes across as well-written and
imaginative, but none makes a special claim on your attention, as, say,
Bizet's Symphony in C does, to name an early work by another prodigy.

Serebrier's Sonata for Solo Violin in a single movement appeared when
the composer was nine (it's his opus 1) and had had only a few lessons
on the instrument.  A much older composer would have been proud to produce
it.  It taxes both the performer's virtuosity and his intellect.  Serebrier
confesses to having composed much of it by "intuition," since he had no
conscious idea of key-relationships or of any classical form.  Indeed,
the Sonata is no sonata.  Instead, it riffs on a few ideas, more like a
fantasia, but it does indeed hang together.

The most recent work on the program, Winterreise, the composer
justifiably calls a fantasy.  For me, unfortunately, it amounts to
little more than an exercise in orchestration and quotation.  The
composer deliberately quotes from "winter" pieces by Haydn, Glazunov,
and Tchaikovsky.  I caught none of them, although I know the sources.
This turned out well, since it left me free to concentrate on Serebrier's
work without the distraction of, in effect, celebrity-spotting.  The
orchestra at times sounds as if on steroids, but nothing other than a
few instrumental effects stuck with me.

The Fantasia for Strings, originally conceived as a string quartet
and again in one long movement, consists of three strains.  The first
is a Landler idea of Mahlerian delicacy (Serebrier suggests the violin
solo in the Symphony No.  4).  The second is a Vaughan-Williamsy, Lark
Ascending lyricism, while the third is altogether more stressful and
agitated, more like Bartok.  Somehow, all three not only co-exist but
form a dramatic argument, with the first two leading to the stress.
Indeed, the piece ends "full of trouble."

The most substantial piece on the CD, the Symphony No.  2, has a
curious history.  Serebrier wrote four movements.  Robert Whitney of
the Louisville Orchestra wanted to record the piece but asked that the
slow second movement be cut for the recording.  Since it would have been
his first recorded composition, Serebrier allowed it, although he wasn't
happy, and named the three-movement version Partita.  Stokowski later
recorded the slow movement as Poema Elegiaco, and that work has had a
life of its own.  As far as I know, this is the first recording of the
original version of the symphony.

The first movement dances to a samba beat.  Copland (Serebrier studied
with Copland at Tanglewood), Villa-Lobos, and Chavez show themselves as
influences, but the work exhibits a naturalness and ease, something like
Schubert, had he been born in Uruguay like Serebrier.  The young composer
uses the Latin-Americanisms unselfconsciously, because that is what he
has to express, not because he's trying to be "national." The slow second
movement, another fantasia, elaborates on the opening line in the double
basses and builds an impressive span.  The third movement, "Interlude,"
takes a variant of that bass line for its harmonic foundation.  It relates
most closely to a passacaglia, although its function is mainly to effect
a transition from the second movement to the finale.  With its emphasis
on chamber-like textures and spectacular counterpoint, it counts for me
as the most imaginatively scored of the symphony.  The last movement,
titled "Fugue," takes another samba idea for its subject.  A samba fugue!
Serebrier stuffs it with such "learned" tricks as subject inversion and
killer stretti, even a B-A-C-H motif that relates to the main theme of
the second movement.  The B-A-C-H gets its own extended contrapuntal
treatment.  At one point, however, Serebrier gives up the fugue for pure
dancing, and the piece ends in a riot of rhythm.  The symphony may not
scale the heights of Mahler, but it's as cute as kittens.

Serebrier of course knows how to conduct.  In fact, his recording of
the symphony eclipses Whitney's classic account, and not just because it
uses the whole piece.  The London Philharmonic has fun and here and there
comes up with real opulence, particularly from the strings, in the Poema
Elegiaco and in the Fantasia.  One of the most entertaining discs in the
Naxos American Classics series.

Steve Schwartz

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