SEREBRIER: Symphony No. 3 (Symphonie mystique). Passacaglia and Perpetuum Mobile. Variations on a Theme from Childhood. Elegy for Strings. Momento psicologico. Fantasia. Dorothy and Carmine! George and Muriel.
Carole Farley, soprano; Yi Yao, accordion; Laurente le Chennadec, bassoon; Sandrine Tilly, flute; Renaud Gruss, double bass; Xinum Choir; Toulouse National Chamber Orch/Jose Serebrier, cond.
NAXOS 8.559183 (B) (DDD) TT: 78:14


José Serebrier has been such a fine conductor for some four-plus decades to date, it bewilders that he is not music director of one of American’s major orchestras. Not only a conductor of rare expertise and comprehensive repertoire—on this occasion making the Toulouse National Chamber Orchestra sound like the Boston Symphony Chamber Players—he is a composer of fastidious taste in the best of his music I’ve heard. Quicker than the Road Runner, too. Consider the featured Third Symphony (Symphonie mystique) for strings and wordless soprano, employed in the last of four movements for disembodied coloristic rather than solo effect. He wrote it in a week, when (1) it was feared the disc might be too short, and (2) an accordionist soloist had to cancel because of ill health. The latter’s pupil, Yi Yao, substituted, and according to Serebrier “came through giving a virtuoso performance of the accordion concerto” a.k.a. Passacaglia and Perpetuum Mobile, composed in 1966 on commission but given its first recording here. So are the new symphony, Variations on a Theme of Childhood (1963, which can be played on either a trombone or bassoon, the latter here), and Elegy for Strings, Serebrier’s first published work composed in 1952 at the age of 14.

Momento psicologico followed five years later when he had moved to the US to study with Aaron Copland, who suggested the title for string music with a “distant trumpet” that plays a single note throughout at various volume-levels. Fantasia was originally for string quartet in 1960—introduced at the Inter-American Music Festival in 1961 and still memorable more than 40 years later, its impact if not the notes themselves. His publisher suggested a string orchestra version with the addition of double basses, while the title was “a kind of homage to Stokowski /Disney’s wonderful film.” Eighteen months later he became the conductor’s protégéwith the American Symphony Orchestra. Two remaining short pieces were inspired by friends: George and Muriel (Marek), RCA Red Seal’s former repertory chief and his wife on their 60th wedding anniversary in 1987; Dorothy and Carmine in 1991 to celebrate the wedding of his Miami (FL) friends, the Vlachos. In the latter, a flute player sitting in the audience begins to play with the string orchestra onstage, joining the ensemble before wandering off. In George and Muriel, a double-bass soloist plays with double-bass choir and wordless offstage chorus.

If this whets your appetite, good! Except for the 25-minute symphony and 11-minute Fantasia, these works are short but never short-measure. Each is the consummation of a musical function, and their collective effect is absorbing. Serebrier is a tonal composer whose themes are distinctive if not, in the conventional Romantic sense, “melodic.” But his mastery of orchestral effect is impeccable, and so are these performances (with the possible exception of Carol Farley, Serebrier’s wife, whose soprano has worn with time and bold usage, especially as Berg’s Lulu). Phil Rowlands is the triple-threat sound engineer, producer and editor—a prize any label would be proud to own.
Did I mention, in addition to Serebrier’s talents as a composer-conductor, that he writes the best program notes of any composer-conductor in the business—concise, clear-headed, almost novelistic in their organization? All of which is to say that Naxos has another winner, leaving me the single problem of what to jettison in restricted space so I can keep this release.

R.D. (October 2003)