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

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)