by Walter Simmons
HOVHANESS Symphony No. 1, “Exile” (original version). COPLAND Symphony No. 2, “Short.” MILHAUD Symphony No. 1. SEREBRIER Symphony No. 1. ● Leopold Stokowski, cond; NBC SO; Houston SO ● GUILD GHCD-2347 (72:51) Live: 12/6/1942; 1/9/1944; 3/21/1943; 11/4/1957
This recent release will be of interest to committed Stokowski enthusiasts, as well as to serious admirers of the composers represented; however, more general listeners are referred elsewhere. I write as a devoted—but not unqualified—admirer of the conductor and of some of the composers. As may be gleaned from the headnote, the Hovhaness, Copland, and Milhaud are taken from live broadcasts with the NBC Symphony from the early 1940s; the Serebrier was taken from a live 1957 performance by the Houston Symphony.
Hovhaness’s Symphony No. 1, “Exile,” is one of the earliest of the composer’s works generally available on recording. (Listeners familiar with the often-recounted tale of the composer’s having burned all the music he had composed up to about 1942 in a giant bonfire may not realize that in truth a good deal of that music remains extant, often integrated into later works, sometimes in modified form, sometimes not.) The Symphony No. 1, “Exile,” was originally composed in 1936, when Hovhaness was 25, to commemorate the massacre of the Armenians by the Turks during the late 1910s. It was first performed for live broadcast in 1939 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Leslie Heward. Its subsequent rendition by the NBC Symphony Orchestra, broadcast late in 1942, marks the first auspicious orchestral performance of the composer’s work in the United States. Stokowski remained a vigorous champion of Hovhaness’s music for the rest of his life. (I recall attending a Hovhaness performance conducted by Stokowski when he was past 90.) Stokie lead the premiere in 1955 of Mysterious Mountain, the work that first brought widespread attention to the composer and his music (though its high visibility was largely the result of an RCA Victor recording featuring the Chicago Symphony under Reiner’s direction). Given the chronology, one can perhaps assume that this 1942 performance of the “Exile” Symphony represents the “original version” of the work, and this may be its chief point of interest. In 1961, a score of the symphony was published, but the performance heard here differs significantly from that score, which includes music not heard here, while some of the music heard here does not appear in that score. The version of the work recorded by the Seattle Symphony, conducted by Gerard Schwarz in 1995, conforms to the 1961 score, except for the fact that the central fast movement was replaced by an entirely new (or perhaps one should say, different) movement. What this recording clearly indicates is that the kind of music Hovhaness composed before the legendary bonfire did not differ all that much from the music he wrote afterwards, although perhaps not immediately afterwards. The replacement of the second movement changes the overall character of the work quite significantly, as the original movement, remarkably simplistic, is also vehement and brutal, while the movement that replaced it is much more gentle and intermezzo-like. The other major point of interest is just how freely and spontaneously the orchestra played under Stokowski: Soloists played in an almost improvisatory fashion, the written rhythms serving as little more than suggestions. In tutti passages a sense of rhythmic pulse is often barely discernable. While one may applaud Stokowski’s encouragement of spontaneity in principle, I can’t imagine that any listener would prefer his performance of this work to Schwarz’s, which is more than a mere approximation of the score.
The performance of Copland’s Symphony No. 2, “Short,” is also of considerable historical interest. As with the Hovhaness, this 1944 reading of the 1933 work is also an “American premiere,” the first performance having taken place several years earlier in Mexico, under the direction of Carlos Chavez. Stokowski was a uniquely gifted conductor, but Copland—especially the Copland of the “Short” Symphony—was really the antithesis of the sort of music at which Stokowski excelled. Its crisp articulation, constantly edgy rhythmic shifts, and spiky gestures were light-years away from the opulent sensuality and emotional immediacy that prompted the maestro’s special gifts. What is also notable is the challenge faced by the NBC Symphony—generally considered one of America’s finest orchestras at the time—in maintaining a coherent sense of ensemble in playing this work. A comparison with the recent Naxos recording, with Marin Alsop leading the Bournemouth Symphony, shows the latter to be far more adept at managing the work’s irregularities—not to mention the London Symphony as conducted by the composer himself. The “Short” Symphony is one of those works from which Copland backed off—at least temporarily—in devising a more populist style, thereby ingratiating himself with the public. Heard today the work—one of Copland’s finest—seems clearly cut from the same cloth as Appalachian Spring, if not quite so “Americana.”
Darius Milhaud, a composer whose fecundity is comparable to that of Hovhaness, is similarly represented on this disc by his Symphony No. 1, although his roster of thirteen symphonies doesn’t come close to matching Hovhaness’s 67. His first essay in the form, his Op. 210, appeared during a period of considerable duress for Milhaud. It was composed in 1939, shortly before the composer, a Jew, fled with his family to the United States to escape the Nazis, though he was forced to leave his parents behind to perish during the German occupation. As if this wasn’t enough, he had just suffered his first attack of the severe rheumatoid arthritis that eventually crippled him. So one might expect this to be a work characterized by profound distress. But not from Milhaud. The symphony, in four predominantly fast movements, is largely sunny in spirit, jauntily displaying the congested polytonality that is one of his more consistent characteristics. Annotator Robert Matthew-Walker calls it “one of the greatest French symphonies of the 20th century.” Although it doesn’t face a tremendous amount of competition in that category, I would sooner grant the distinction to one of the symphonies of Henry Barraud (a composer sorely in need of revival and reconsideration). As there is at least one modern recording of the work, this performance will appeal chiefly to those with special interest in either composer or conductor.
The program concludes with the Symphony No. 1 of José Serebrier. Serebrier, now in his 70s, has enjoyed a long and active career—primarily as a conductor, but as a composer as well—but one that has followed an unusual course, unlike the path followed by most internationally celebrated conductors. Born and educated in Uruguay, but of Russian-Polish ancestry, he displayed a precocious talent. Coming to the United States while still in his teens, he studied conducting with George Szell, and was discovered by Stokowski when he was 19. The conductor took him on as an apprentice, appointing him assistant conductor of the newly formed American Symphony Orchestra during the early 1960s. Functioning under the radar for many years, Serebrier has lately been the beneficiary of considerable attention for his recent recordings, and his own compositions are now well represented in the catalog. I have long been an admirer of his Symphony No. 2, “Partita”—and would not hesitate to describe it as the most satisfying Latin American-flavored work known to me—although none of his other works has impressed me as deeply.
Serebrier completed his Symphony No. 1 in 1956, when he was 18, and Stokowski conducted the premiere the following year. (The amusing story of how this came about is recounted in the liner notes.) The work comprises a single movement, beginning slowly in the lower strings in a manner reminiscent of the opening of Creston’s Second Symphony, and immediately exhibits the character of a passacaglia, although I don’t believe that it hews strictly to the principles of that genre. A theme is introduced and developed through a dissonant counterpoint that calls Hindemith to mind. What is most interesting about the work is the way this theme evolves from a somber, dissonant context, gradually becoming increasingly straightforward and outgoing, finally ending in diatonic triumph. The performance by the Houston Symphony does the work justice, but is far outclassed in every respect by the Bournemouth Symphony recording released recently by Naxos, under the composer’s own direction. Readers who are intrigued by Serebrier are encouraged to pursue his many recordings, as well as the readily available information about his unconventional but highly productive career.