SEREBRIER: Symphony No. 2 (Partita) (1958). Fantasia for Strings (1960).
Sonata for Violin Solo (1948). Winterreise (1999).
Gonzalo Acosta (violin); London Philharmonic Orchestra/José Serebrier.
Naxos 8.559303 (B) (DDD) TT: 60:21
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Ex-prodigy. Conductor and composer José 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
Ländler 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 Bartók. 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 Chávez 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, riffs 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 basis. 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.
S.G.S. (November 2007)