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Texas Public Radio, February 2009

José Serebrier was a protégé of Leopold Stokowski, and in recent years has released many of the maestro’s arrangements and transcriptions. Serebrier has a great gift of music making and lets the Youth Orchestra of Spain shine in these selections, and makes them play like a great orchestra, including beautiful readings of Wagner’s Meistersinger von Nuremburg Prelude, and Bizet’s Farandole from L’Arlesienne. The real magic is heard with Serebrier’s wife, soprano Carole Farley, in Serebrier’s Symphony No. 3; and a full reading of Pictures at an Exhibition. Chester Cathedral also sets a beautiful space in which this DVD was filmed. This is a highly recommended DVD. Spain is producing first-class musicians, to judge by the talent displayed in this live recording.

Peter J. Rabinowitz
Fanfare, January 2009

In between the Wagner appetizer and the Bizet encore, the National Youth Orchestra of Spain serves up first-rate performances of three relative rarities. Granted, most listeners prefer Ravel’s more elegantly Parisian Pictures; but it’s hard to resist the hedonistic pull of Stokowski’s more spectacularly Vegas alternative. Granted, too, Serebrier’s Symphony for strings and (in the last movement) wordless soprano may not appeal to everyone…Still, to my ears, it’s an arresting score, moving from a vigorous opening Presto with clear debts to Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta on to three darker and more enigmatic movements of striking—sometimes nearly Mahlerian—emotional depth. The spare landscape of the second movement, which grows from a long wandering line for cellos alone, is especially haunting.

Rob Maynard
MusicWeb International, September 2008

I was, from the moment I slipped the DVD into the player, predisposed to enjoy it. Naxos has, you see, dispensed with those very annoying features that everyone else wants to force us to watch—and prevents us from fast-forwarding—before we can access the main feature. Here there is no stern prohibition, couched in terms reminiscent of the most severe tenets of Sharia law, ordering us not to exhibit this film on an oil rig platform. And we are, moreover, thankfully spared that annoying feature suggesting that maybe even copying your home-movie of snowboarding in Gstaad risks a visit from the FBI and the rather less pleasant prospect of waterboarding in Guantanamo Bay.

No, instead we get to the main menu within just a few seconds of placing the disc in the tray. And if, like me, you sometimes need an immediate happiness-fix by quickly accessing, say, a particular DVD track where Maya Plisetskaya executes 32 continuous and perfect fouettés in the Black Swan pas de deux, you’ll applaud this Naxos innovation that would allow you to do so before the momentary inclination has entirely passed.

So far, so good—but what about the contents? The first point to make is that this is not a “youth orchestra” in the sense that we know it in the UK. The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain includes children between the ages of 13 and 19. But this Spanish equivalent, Joven Orquesta Nacional de España (JONDE), accepts applicants between the ages of 18 and 24, which clearly has the potential to make quite a considerable difference.

The concert—given as part of the 2007 Chester Summer Music Festival—gets off to a very promising start with a strongly driven and, on the whole, very well played performance of the Meistersinger prelude. The immediate impression is of powerful brass—emphasised, of course, by the cathedral’s somewhat reverberant acoustic—and warm, sonorous strings but the wind section soon demonstrates its own agility and expertise, too. Perhaps the more stately episodes were taken in just a little too controlled a manner and Serebrier might have pushed his young musicians on just a little more firmly in one or two places, but the Chester audience were clearly delighted by what they heard.

I’m not so sure, though, how those same listeners took to the next item on the programme—Serebrier’s own Symphony no.3 for strings. Subtitled Symphonie mystique, it dates from 2003, when it was written in just a single week, and so I doubt whether anyone in Chester cathedral had ever heard it performed live before. Certainly more agreeable and accessible than much other contemporary music, it probably, nevertheless, requires several hearings before a proper assessment can be made. A spiky and acerbic—but relatively short—first movement makes a good showcase for orchestral virtuosity and is then followed by three others, each of which is far more mellow—with a great deal of engaging writing for the cellos—and occasionally lyrical. The longest, an Andante mosso with a haunting waltz episode that the composer characterises as sad and cryptic, made the most positive impression on me. I imagine, though, that Serebrier himself might have picked out the Andante comodo finale, primarily an exercise in the creation of pure atmosphere that, he says, explains the whole symphony’s subtitle. Soprano Carole Farley makes a brief but quite effective mystique contribution of her own that is both wordless and disembodied—she actually sings down on the orchestra from the organ loft.

Serebrier was a protegé and associate of Leopold Stokowski who actually hailed him, at just 21 years old, as “the greatest master of orchestral balance”. Since then the younger man has consistently promoted his old patron’s rearranged and reorchestrated versions of Bach, Wagner, Mussorgsky and others—most recently on a well-received series of Naxos discs.

Here we have Stokowski’s 1939 takes on Mussorgsky’s A Night on Bare Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition. For me, the former was the undoubted highlight of the DVD. It is quite common these days to hear Mussorgsky’s original version, as opposed to Rimsky-Korsakov’s rather more sophisticated revision—both may be found together in first rate performances from the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine under Theodore Kuchar on Naxos (8.555924). But Stokowski’s hugely enjoyable rearrangement is something else entirely. Heavily influenced by the requirements of Hollywood—he was working on Walt Disney’s Fantasia at the time—he has produced a Technicolor version of Mussorgsky’s music that is genuinely spooky and utterly quirky. It completely subverts, moreover, all previous sanitised Rimsky-ish preconceptions in its outrageous depiction of satanic jollifications…and, it must be admitted, its blatant playing to the gallery.

Stokowski’s version of Pictures at an Exhibition was deliberately cruder and painted in more primary colours than Ravel’s far better known 1922 orchestration. Given that lacks Tuileries, The market at Limoges and one of the Promenade episodes, it is also rather shorter. As Serebrier himself rightly says in the booklet notes, it is pointless to compare Stokowski and Ravel, for each was reinterpreting the original Mussorgsky piano work from a completely different perspective. The more overtly “Slavic” Stokowski version, also very well recorded a decade ago by another admirer, Mathias Bamert (on Chandos 9445), certainly deserves an occasional airing and the young Spaniards on this DVD certainly respond enthusiastically and with gusto—but invariably musically—to its inherent panache. The performance once more showcases the obviously well-drilled orchestra’s rich, sonorous strings (for a good example look no further than the opening Promenade), its plangent, colourful woodwinds (the Ballet of the chickens in their shells), the appropriately powerful and characterful brass (Bydlo, The hut on fowl’s legs, The great gate of Kiev) and an array of percussionists and timpanists who understandably seem to be having the most fun of all (Catacombs and The great gate of Kiev).

From all appearances, conductor Jose Serebrier enjoys a genuine rapport with the orchestra. He gives clear directions that are carefully followed by the young musicians, and the results are of a very high standard indeed. Watching this, it is difficult to understand why Spain still lacks a world class symphony orchestra to its name.

Chester cathedral’s acoustics are, on the whole, well tamed: I have certainly attended concerts in cathedrals where reverberation has been much more of an issue than here. The video director has also done a more than competent job and ensures that the camera is always appropriately angled and ready whenever a particular instrument needs to be highlighted. Unlike an opera or ballet performance, I don’t know that I would want to watch an orchestral concert over and over again—but, as a one-off, this is all very impressive and certainly very well worth watching.

Kanes-Blog, August 2008

I really had a blast watching Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition—A Naxos Musical Journey [2.110230]. The movie was amazing…From majestic castles and lush gardens to mysterious hidden underground passageways and bustling markets, these are some of the indelible images evoked in Mussorgsky’s famed “Pictures at an Exhibition”.

This volume of the NAXOS MUSICAL JOURNEY takes you on a tour of St. Petersburg’s opulent castles; through Yalta’s delightful fairy-tale garden; then a colorful marketplace filled with exotic birds. A train ride propels you through the haunting Russian landscape. Explore the eerie underground caves at Odessa that echo with stories of adventure and intrigue. Experience the intimacy of great Russian art and the glorious expanse of the Moscow nightscape. Mussorgsky’s “Pictures” comes to life for an experience as timeless as the music itself.

An added bonus! Famed Russian composer Borodin’s “In the Steppes of Central Asia” and “Polovtsian Dances” (from “Prince Igor”) accompany images of the great Red Sand Desert and Bukhara’s grand display of architecture.

Gary Lemco
Audiophile Audition, August 2008

Guest-conductor José Serebrier appears in triple guise as composer, conductor, and acolyte of one of his mentors, Leopold Stokowski.

Recorded in concert 7 August 2007 from the Chester Cathedral, these performances capture the suave elegance of the National Youth Orchestra of Spain (founded 1983) while on tour under guest-conductor José Serebrier, appearing in triple guise as composer, conductor, and acolyte of his own mentor, Leopold Stokowski.  Resembling a modern version of Willem Mengelberg, José Serebrier sports a fluid baton technique, although he will abandon that instrument when emotional conditions require. He opens with a broadly articulate rendition of the Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger, the youthful flute and oboe among the attentive instrumentalists who never cease to attend to cues from their eminent maestro. Harps, trumpets, a trio of feminine French horn players, and the tympani join in the illumined pages of the fugato, with José Serebrier often miming the violin fingering he wants.  Clarinets, oboes, and tutti strings and brass usher in the Entrance of the Masters, as their clarion call rises over the sea of competing orchestral voices, a panoply of shimmering colors.

José Serebrier composed his Third Symphony (2003) in one week, scoring the piece as a string symphony with wordless soprano solo. The opening movement moves moto perpetuo, with repeated rhythms and a dark, legato melody amidst the nervous, metric thrusts. Cellos introduce the dirge-like Lento that proceeds on the basis of a half-step spread over several octaves. The concertmaster introduces a high-pitched plaint from afar, but the melancholia remains. The figures flutter and anxiously whisper, but no resolution ensues. The third movement Andante mosso begins with gloomy second violins and violas in shifting, amorphous figures, melodically undefined.  An obsessive waltz emerges over pizzicati, the string part inflamed like Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht or Britten’s A Simple Symphony. Abortive attempts to rekindle the melody end in resignation. The last movement Andante comodo re-introduces the Slavic theme from the first movement, darkly romantic in the manner of Shostakovich. Carole Farley intones a haunted vocalise, made visual by the camera’s focus first on religious icons and then Farley in the rafters, high above the congregation. A kind of rhapsodic chaconne, the movement achieves a disembodied, haunted character, the composer-conductor having abandoned his baton and closing with flittering fingers.

The opportunity to savor Leopold Stokowski’s treatments of Mussorgsky pays the entrance fee for this concert; and Serebrier makes no apologies for his taste. The Night on Bare Mountain—with its associations of Bela Lugosi miming for the benefit of the Disney animators of Fantasia, 1940—becomes a vibrant, Russian color piece in old modes; no soft touches from Rimsky-Korsakov to sweeten the brew. Gong, flutes, piccolos, each contributes to the orgiastic then lachrymose spirits who return to their daylight tombs after the revel. The baton-less Serebrier relishes the oboe solo, flute, and harp as the tremolo strings usher in a song of thanksgiving.  Having rejected the Ravel orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition as too Gallic, Stokowski retouched the piece himself (along with Lucien Caillet) in 1939, omitting two sections and allowing many rough edges to come forth. Russian liturgical modes combine with old-fashioned, romantic slides and portamenti to keep both players and auditors fastened on the panoply of musical sounds. Gnomus has a seditious fervor about it. The dwarf’s bassoon then takes us through the promenade to The Old Castle, where the troubadour’s song acquires some ghostly colors. The tuba’s Bydlo moves from Wagnerian oratory to a string symphony culminating in a paean to the Russian soil. First chattering chicks, then two obstreperous Jews enter into a Marxist colloquy on social class, the muted trumpets flourishing and the strings churning a commentary on the drama.

Dante or Liszt takes us into the Roman catacombs, an abyss rife with horrific visions. The promenade theme appears distilled into a dead but seductive language. Baba Yaga via Stokowski resembles Stravinsky Katschei from The Firebird—inflamed, menacing, vulgar, pestiferous.  Finally, a broad, expansive canvas for The Gate of Kiev, an organ sonority permeating every bar for over eight minutes. The secondary clarion subject takes us deep into the Russian Orthodox Church for Russian Easter, whence the promenade becomes akin to the Sermon on the Mount. Acknowledging the unanimous applause, Serebrier grants us one encore, the Farandole from Bizet’s The Girl from Arles, Suite No. 2, a rousing instance of pipes and full orchestra manipulated by a young ensemble obviously as enthralled with music as their gifted conductor.

Jeffrey Kauffman
DVD Talk, July 2008

What a sweet and bracing breath of fresh air it is to see conductor/composer Jose Serebrier taking such obvious delight in the brilliant playing of his National Youth Orchestra of Spain on this concert DVD filmed at Chester Cathedral in Britain. Serebrier doesn’t just communicate that delight in his frequent smiles and gestures to these young soon-to-be professionals—he actually takes several opportunities to have whole sections and individual soloists stand for some audience recognition, something that rarely if ever happens in the more staid confines of big city philharmonic halls. The fact is, though, that these young people are more than deserving of the accolades Serebrier invites for them. In a performance spanning a couple of warhorses, one demanding new piece and a suitably flashy encore, Serebrier and his charges rise to the occasion with some beautifully textured and nuanced playing that proves that these “youth” are indeed ready for prime time.

Bravissimo to Maestro Serebrier for guiding a new generation of world-class players through a nicely diverse program of music both well-known and (most likely) new to most audiences. The National Youth Orchestra of Spain should be very proud of this DVD, and any classical music fan should enjoy it.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, June 2008

In between the Wagner appetizer and the Bizet encore, the National Youth Orchestra of Spain serves up first-rate performances of three relative rarities. Granted, most listeners prefer Ravel’s more elegantly Parisian Pictures; but it’s hard to resist the hedonistic pull of Stokowski’s more spectacularly Vegas alternative. Granted, too, Serebrier’s Symphony for strings and (in the last movement) wordless soprano may not appeal to everyone…Still, to my ears, it’s an arresting score, moving from a vigorous opening Presto with clear debts to Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta on to three darker and more enigmatic movements of striking—sometimes nearly Mahlerian—emotional depth. The spare landscape of the second movement, which grows from a long wandering line for cellos alone, is especially haunting.

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