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Peter Burwasser
Fanfare, January 2011

You certainly cannot pigeonhole the music of José Serebrier, if this survey is any guide. It does cover a broad period, from the youthful Symphony No. 1 of 1956 to the movie music for a film that was never made, in 2009. As related by the composer in the extensive program notes, all of these pieces have an interesting story behind them, none more so than the symphony. Serebrier was still a student at the Curtis Institute of Music in 1957 when, as he says, he literally bumped into a cello student on the street and spilled the pages of his manuscript onto the sidewalk. The cellist, Harvey Wolf, was on his way to join the Houston Symphony, then led by Leopold Stokowski, and suggested that he show the music to the great old man. Against all odds, Stokowski agreed to read the score, and liked it well enough to put it in the place of the Ives Fourth Symphony, which was giving his players trouble. Serebrier actually ignored the Curtis operator’s messages to return Stokowski’s phone calls, thinking it a student prank. Finally, Curtis director Efrem Zimbalist summoned the fledgling composer to his office; “What are you doing? Maestro Stokowski called me to say he’s been trying to reach you urgently for two days!”

It is not too hard to imagine what drew Stokowski to the music. It is a good showpiece, full of the kind of sweeping dramatic gestures that the wizard reveled in, as well as flashy writing for instrumentalists, especially in the brass. Today we might hear it as a decent work by a very talented and impressionable young man, responding to the influence of midcentury Russian music, Shostakovich in particular. The rumbling opening has the flavor of Mahler as well. A derivative work, to be sure, but built upon a good structure and natural sense for theatrical effectiveness.

That ability falters in the 1971 Concerto for Double Bass, written for the preeminent virtuoso of that instrument, Gary Karr. This is very much a period piece, wildly ambitious, at times amusingly eclectic, elsewhere merely annoying. For starters, inserting a dramatic reading of a poem (twice!) into a concerto is simply odd. Even if it is a decent work (in this case, Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound), and even if it is nicely read, as it is here by the fine English classical actor Simon Callow, I can’t see how it can work more than once, if even that. More oddness: the appearance of a jazz percussion ensemble well into the concerto, and the oohing and aahing of the proverbial ethereal choir to draw the messy piece to a spacey conclusion. As a cultural relic of the back end of the Age of Aquarius this work has some merit. As a lasting work of art, not so much.

The Violin Concerto, completed two decades after the Concerto for Double Bass, is a far more coherent and interesting work. It is subtitled “Winter,” an allusion to a dark, even bleak character, especially as the one-movement work begins, with a slow solo cadenza at the low end of the violin’s range. As if to signal the changes of the seasons, the work brightens as it proceeds, with subtly integrated quotes from Haydn, Glazunov, and Tchaikovsky, all of whom also wrote musical odes to winter. The conclusion is the emotional reverse of the beginning, a bright, raucous fanfare. This is an impressive, compact concerto, easily the best work on this program.

The two tangos are fluffy fillers, though well put together. They Rode Into The Sunset—Music for an Imaginary Film was commissioned by a Bollywood studio that closed down production as a result of a long strike after Serebrier had already completed the music. I don’t think that he conceived of the work as a parody, but it sounds like one. The coda, complete with a reprise from that wordless choir of the Concerto for Double Bass and a slow, thumping crescendo, is the kind of writing that gives movie music a bad rap. The performance is excellent; the Bournemouth band gives us rich and precise playing, and we can assume that the leadership is authoritative.

Edith Eisler
Strings Magazine, January 2011

These works span five decades. All are characterized by superb orchestration and extreme dynamic and textural contrasts, from whispers to crashes and eruptions. Several quote familiar tunes that remain unidentified, perhaps to test or tease listeners’ memories. Symphony No. 1, written when Serebrier was 17, is in several connected, contrasting sections.

The double bass concerto was written for Gary Karr, who plays the stratospheric, brilliant solo part with great virtuosity…

The violin concerto, whose title “Winter” refers to the end of life rather than the season, combines instrumental fireworks and sound effects with pensive, elegiac passages. Violinist Philippe Quint, joined by concertmaster Duncan Riddell in long duet passages, projects both the bravura and the somberness.

The tangos are fun…

Robert Matthew-Walker
International Record Review, November 2010

As with all the works on this generous CD—but especially the Symphony—the music is wholly worthwhile. This remarkably successful and accomplished issue deserves a very strong recommendation.

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, October 2010

Born in Uruguay (1938) of Slavic parents, José Serebrier was truly a wunderkind when you consider he made his conducting debut at eleven, had written a prize-winning overture by the age of fifteen, and graduated from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia at twenty. His teachers there included Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959…), as well as Vittorio Giannini (1903–1966…), and he also studied with Aaron Copland (1900–1990) at Tanglewood in the 1950s.

Many awards and distinctions would soon follow, highlighted during the 1960s with Leopold Stokowski (1882–1977) naming him assistant conductor of the newly formed American Symphony Orchestra, and his being asked by George Szell (1897–1970) to be the Cleveland Orchestra’s Composer-in-Residence for its 1968–69 and 1969–70 seasons. Having since then become one of today’s most frequently recorded classical conductors, most know Serebrier only in that capacity. But he’s also an extremely gifted composer, and this third CD in Naxos’ ongoing series devoted to his symphonic music (see also Naxos 8559183 and 8559303) should go a long way towards making more people aware of that.

The program begins with his first symphony of 1956, which was Serebrier’s second orchestral work. Completely tonal and in one movement, it might best be described as a theme with meditative variations. The strings intone an anguished introduction hinting at the main idea, which soon follows [track-1, beginning at 02:36]. It’s a rhythmically insistent tune (RI) ideally suited to the diverse mood-altering transformations about to come. These range from pensive to threatening and triumphant. The symphony then ends reverently with what would seem to be church bells tolling in the distance and a monumental chorale based on RI.

The world première recording of Nueve (Nine, 1971) is next. This is a single movement concerto for double bass…where the title refers to the nine thematic variations comprising it (see the informative album notes by the composer for more details). It’s a concertante piece of a different feather where the soloist is also suppose to recite a couple of short excerpts from Shelley’s (1792–1822) Prometheus Unbound (1820) [track-2, at 00:46–01:09 and 12:05–12:37], although here they’re read by an actor.

Not only that, the score has no bar lines, and the configuration of the orchestra is unusual…to say the least. More specifically, the strings surround some of the brass, with the rest stationed in one of the balconies. And the only woodwinds are two clarinets placed surreptitiously in the audience.

A mysterious piece, the opening is subdued and builds to a jazzy percussive battle in the spirit of Nielsen’s (1865–1931) Inextinguishable Symphony (No. 4, 1914–16). The concerto ends with a monumental unison one note crescendo that fades as a wind machine plus vocalizing chorus a lá Vaughan Williams’ (1872–1958) Sinfonia Antarctica (No. 7, 1949–52) emerge. In conclusion we hear the last Shelley quotation as tutti and then the soloist follow the chorus into the icy mists.

Another one movement concerto, this time for violin, follows. Written in 1991, it’s subtitled “Winter,” and meant as a musical characterization of the end of life rather than a season. It opens with a cadenza where the soloist states a laid-back extended romantic theme. The orchestra soon joins in, and the pace accelerates into an allegro with several boisterous bravura outbursts.

Towards the end Serebrier quotes from winter-related works by three other composers. Without looking at the album notes, can you name them [track-3, beginning at 10:40, 11:16 and 11:53]? The concerto concludes with some fancy fiddling accompanied by exultant percussion-spiked vociferations from the orchestra.

Two occasional selections are next, the Tango en Azul (Tango in Blue, 2001) and Casi un Tango (Almost a Tango, 2002). Piazzolla (1921–1992) fans will love the former, which begins with the same macho four-note flourish which ends the composer’s Partita Symphony (No. 2, 1958). As for the latter, which is scored for English horn and strings, the word “Almost” is if anything an overstatement when it comes to this lovely melancholy piece. You’ll find it more in line with the pastoral offerings of Delius (1862–1934…) or Vaughan Williams (1872–1958…).

The disc closes with the fourteen-minute symphonic poem They Rode Into the Sunset – Music for an Imaginary Film (2009), which is another world première recording. It’s derived from the score Serebrier was writing for a Bollywood film that was never completed.

Despite the American-Western-sounding title of the piece here, the movie was about a young British-schooled composer from India with a progressively paralytic disease. It was going to include a mini-symphony with piano accompaniment, which explains the brief solo appearance of that instrument. With a rich romantic ending for full orchestra and wordless chorus, They Rode…is in the best tradition of Erich Korngold (1897–1957…), Alfred Newman (1900–1970…) and Max Steiner (1888–1971…)

With a composer, who easily qualifies as one of today’s finest conductors, interpreting his own music, all of these selections must be considered definitive. The performances he gets from the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra are exceptional, and it’s hard to imagine better soloists than double bassist Gary Karr and violinist Philippe Quint. Actor Simon Callow also gets a hand for his dulcet Shelley readings.

Made over two days in the same venue, the recordings are very atmospheric, and will appeal to those liking big soundstages. The one projected here is easily as deep as it is broad, and housed in a wet reverberant acoustic. The instrumental timbre is crystal clear with immaculate transient bass, and highs bordering on the bright side, but not distressingly so. The soloists are well positioned and balanced against the orchestra, as is the chorus. All in all this is audiophile material which will challenge the best sound systems.

Anthony Burton
BBC Music Magazine, October 2010

It’s all well played by the versatile Bournemouth SO under the composer, with committed contributions from the veteran bassist Gary Karr and the outstanding violinist Philippe Quint, and clearly recorded.

Peter Dickinson
Gramophone, October 2010

A youthful symphony offers a glimpse of a much-loved conductor’s ‘other side’

It’s not often that a symphony written by a 16-year-old comes out on CD. José Serebrier was born in Montevideo but through a series of coincidences, including getting some scores seen by Virgil Thomson when he was on a lecture tour, Serebrier’s talent was recognised and thanks to a US State Department fellowship he soon found himself attending Tanglewood, attending Copland’s classes, and working at the Curtis Institute with Vittorio Giannini. Then—another coincidence—when Stokowski in 1957 found Ives’s Fourth Symphony impossible to perform he gave Serebrier’s symphony instead. By 1965 Stokowski did premier the Ives complete and recorded it with Serebrier as one of the two assistant conductors.

The Double Bass Concerto (1971) was written for the admirable Gary Karr. It lasts only 13 minutes but makes lavish demands. There are spoken quotes from Shelley, intended for the soloist but here delivered by Simon Callow; two clarinets placed incognito in the audience but later contributing to a kind of jazz combo; and finally an offstage choir. The Violin Concerto (1991) is on the subject of winter so it quotes similarly seasonal music from Haydn, Glazunov and—more dangerously—Tchaikovsky, because he tends to take over. The most recent piece is They Rode Into the Sunset, a score for a film that was never made. Like the Double Bass Concerto it contains a lengthy orchestral crescendo on a single note B—why? Does it come from Wozzeck? Serebrier gets back to his roots in a couple of agreeable tangos but the First Symphony is a fascinating document from a teenage composer., September 2010

Despite the special focuses of small and little-known labels, it is interesting to notice that a very large CD firm, such as Naxos, has also found a way to make less-familiar music a hallmark of its offerings. Through its “American Classics” and other series, Naxos makes fine performances of little-heard works available at a bargain price—surely with no more expectation of a mass audience for these CDs than the small niche labels have for theirs. A fascinating new José Serebrier CD is a good case in point. Here, as in the Tokarev/Rosenblatt disc for Solo Musica, there is a composer performing his own works; and here too, as in all the niche-label CDs, there is music that will be unfamiliar to most listeners. But it is all very worthy music indeed, and shows just how wide Serebrier’s range is and how his style has evolved over time. His first symphony, written in 1956 when he was 17, has derivative elements but already shows an assured compositional style in which Serebrier is finding his own voice. The CD is, happily, arranged chronologically, so the nuances and growth of the composer’s style can be clearly heard. The Double Bass Concerto, which not only features a fine solo performance by Gary Karr (for whom it was written) but also includes a Shelley poem, the basis of the work, read by actor Simon Callow, dates to 1971 and gets its first recording here. The Violin Concerto (with soloist Philippe Quint) came 20 years later, in 1991, and shows Serebrier’s fully mature style as well as his skill in writing for strings. Two short works from the early 21st century, Tango en Azul (2001) and Casi un Tango (2002), display the composer’s lighter and very rhythmic side, while another first recording—They Rode into the Sunset, written in 2009 and intended for a Bollywood film that was never made—showcases Serebrier’s abilities in tonal writing and in providing a wrapup for a decidedly popular form, the movies (the music was planned for the film’s final scene). Serebrier is a fine conductor at all times, and certainly his work on his own music must be regarded as definitive. More to the point, this CD shows that even today, the world of specialized, targeted recording remains alive and well, within creative major CD labels as well as smaller niche firms.

David Hurwitz, September 2010

José Serebrier is obviously a very talented composer, and it’s good that Naxos is giving him the opportunity to record his music under optimal conditions. The First Symphony is an impressive piece of work, especially for a Uruguayan teenage musician of just 18. Like most of Serebrier’s work, there’s a lyrical side to much of the material that’s quite winning, but the style and “feel” of the music, its single-movement form, and its alternation of melodic episodes with powerfully rhythmic outbursts are quite modern as well as personal.

However, perhaps the two most enjoyable large works here are the Violin Concerto “Winter” (another single-movement piece lasting a bit more than 15 minutes, and wonderfully played by Philippe Quint) and the Music for an Imaginary Film (2009). Actually the film was real; it just became imaginary when a strike forced its cancellation and Serebrier got stuck with the music he had already written. It’s extremely colorful and fun.

The two short “tango” pieces have obvious appeal as encores or musical “calling cards”...[for] the Double Bass Concerto, which also features a speaker (nominally the soloist, but here Simon Callow), chorus, and players stationed all over the hall...the performance is terrific...Indeed, given Serebrier’s gifts as a conductor there’s nothing to criticize here regarding the performances, and the engineering is very good also. Recommended wholeheartedly.

Blair Sanderson, September 2010

Because José Serebrier is much better known as a conductor than as a composer, one must avoid preconceptions of what his music sounds like, for it deserves judgment on its own substance, not on his fame. The works on this Naxos CD reflect their times, so listeners should be aware that Serebrier has been composing since the late 1940s, and he has evolved through the various phases of modernism, from a serious American contrapuntal style in his Symphony No. 1 (1956); the use of experimental sonorities and atonality in his Nueve: Double Bass Concerto (1971); chromatic tonality in his Violin Concerto, “Winter” (1991); and dramatic scene painting in They Rode Into the Sunset: Music for an Imaginary Film (2009). Add to this the colorful Tango en Azul (2001) and Casi un Tango (2002), which display his affection for South American music, and Serebrier’s portrait shows his great versatility in many musical idioms, as well as his non-doctrinaire approach to music. There is a common freedom of rhythm and lyrical feeling to his melodies, and he is quite fluid in his use of dissonances and tonal harmonies, so there is a consistency of technique in his music, if a less obvious continuity of style. Serebrier conducts his works with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and his passion and energy are almost tangible in their vivid playing. The sound of these recordings is excellent, with a wide frequency range and brilliant colors from the soloists and the orchestra, so all the performers are heard to their best advantage.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, August 2010

One of the most recorded classical artists of our day, the conductor and composer, Jose Serebrier, had his First Symphony performed in a high-profile concert at the age of seventeen. Born in Uruguay in 1938 of Russian/Polish parentage, Serebrier made his American conducting debut with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington at the age of nineteen, and between a hectic international conducting commitment has written a sizeable portfolio of works. Many have won major awards, and though he writes that ‘in my music, while the style changed in the 1960’s and 70’s, the ‘message’ has remained the same’. Well that might be his view, but I see a composer fascinated by sonorities who continues to experiment in the most interesting way. The First Symphony was tonal, often highly charged with youthfully exuberance and very easy to enjoy. Fifteen years later he was stretching the technical limits of the double bass with the help of the great virtuoso, Gary Karr. Putting the instrument through many guises, including a jazz combo, it is an exhibition score, Karr demonstrating that age does not diminish his brilliance. Twenty years later Serebrier was looking for a modern Four Seasons for solo violin and orchestra. He could not find ‘Winter’, and so in desperation wrote one, the work becoming his Violin Concerto. A picture of a turbulent season, in which the solo instrument—in an incredibly difficult role—is tossed around by a violent orchestra. Two Tangos from the beginning of this century have a sensual and immediate attraction, the final track being given to a short ‘symphony’, They Rode into the Sunset. For a film never made, and here as a ‘stand alone’ work it is receiving it’s recording debut. Karr and Philippe Quint—the soloist in the Violin Concerto—are fabulous, with the Bournemouth Symphony in stunning form for Serebrier’s conducting. High impact sound.

Gavin Dixon
Classical CD Reviews, July 2010

Around this time last year I interviewed José Serebrier. He had just come back from recording Glazunov symphonies in Glasgow, and was about to set off for Poole to record some of his own music. One of the Glazunov works he had just recorded was the composer’s 1st Symphony, written when he was a teenager, and one of the works he was about to record was his 1st Symphony, written when he too was a teenager. When I asked he denied that the comparison was particularly meaningful, saying that Glazunov’s voice appears in this 1st Symphony fully mature, with no need for further development.

Having now heard Serebrier’s own 1st Symphony, I realise that this was just modesty, because this work also demonstrates a completely mature musical outlook despite its composer’s youth. It is a work of energy and passion. His mastery of orchestration at such a young age is remarkabe, but significantly, is not the overriding message of the work, for this is much more than a technical exercise or tryout of the genre. I think it is appropriate that Naxos have released the disc as part of their ‘American Classics’ range, because it fits squarely into the mid-20th century American symphonic tradition. There is plenty of Rachmaninov in there, something that the composer would attribute to his Slavic roots, but there is also an admirable sense of discipline and restraint, as if neo-classicism has influenced its scale and structure, but without affecting its post-Romantic style.

Serebrier has said that as a young composer, he wrote single movement works because he felt that multi-movement forms had become redundant. In a sense, that view seems quite arbitrary considering how many traditional stylistic features his music retains from the 19th century. But somehow he always manages to avoid cliché or parody. Perhaps his diverse roots are to thank: he was born and brought up in Uruguay to Polish and Russian parents before moving to the US to study. Like many new world composers, his work takes elements of European musical traditions and reconfigures them. It’s this reconfiguration that makes the work distinctive, and surprising too. I get the impression (and I may be wrong) that the music comes naturally to Serebrier and that he doesn’t have to search too hard for inspiration. It was the 1st Symphony that put Serebrier on the map when Stokowski premiered and later recorded the work. The Stokowski recording has recently been reissued, and although I haven’t had a chance to hear it, I can imagine that this is just the sort of music Stokowski would have loved. Perhaps the orchestration is a little more modest than he would have written himself, but the passionate, full tutti textures, the innovative percussion, the sweeping string lines – it’s all very Stokowskiesque.

The Double Bass Concerto ‘Nueve’ is another story entirely. It is a much more experimental work, with offstage players, a choir, jazz breaks and even a text for the soloist to recite. Serebrier describes the work as being of its time (1971), and certainly all these ideas were in the process of becoming common currency then. In fact, the work is more lyrical and more approachable than its description suggests. The move from Copland-like symphonism to Berio-like experimentalism doesn’t significantly affect the overall style of the music. Somehow, and this is all the more impressive given the choice of solo instrument, the work functions as a traditional concerto. The performance of all the works on the disc is excellent, as is the sound, but the engineers have been faced with some unusual challenges in the Double Bass Concerto. Simon Callow (a close friend of the composer) reads the text instead of the soloist, but you don’t get the impression that they are sharing a stage. Perhaps they are, but Callow’s voice has been so isolated from the acoustic that it sounds like he is in the control room. An impressive performance here from soloist Gary Carr, the work’s dedicatee. He is an older man than he was in 1971, but you wouldn’t know it from his agility around the finger board and his impressive projection.

Philippe Quint is also impressive as the soloist in the following Violin Concerto ‘Winter’. If I’ve less to say about this piece, it is because it doesn’t go in for any of the theatrics of the Double Bass Concerto. It’s still a well written work though, but it is one of those more downbeat and diminutive concertante works that you can’t imagine anybody ever having occasion to programme.

The rest of the disc is essentially filler, two tangos and an orphaned piece of film music. Interestingly, though, these are all recent works, yet are stylistically and technically very similar to Serebrier’s earlier work.

Excellent performances throughout from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. I have always thought that they are an ensemble who need inspiring leadership to bring out their best, and Serebrier clearly has what it takes to get top quality music making from them.

I was reading an interview today with Klaus Heymann, CEO of Naxos. He says that orchestral recordings don’t make the company any money because of the production costs, and that they only continue making them for the prestige. I think the answer to that paradox is the sheer quality of the result here, both of the music being championed and of the production values of the release. They might not break even with this one, but it is more than worthy of all the great prestige it attracts.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group