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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg prelude (1868) [10:40]
José SEREBRIER (b. 1938)
Symphony no.3 “Symphonie mystique” * (2003) [27:03]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
A Night on Bare Mountain (1866) (arr. Leopold Stokowski) [10:27]
Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) (arr. Leopold Stokowski) [30:07]
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
L’Arlésienne suite no.2 - Farandole (arr. Ernest Guiraud) (1872) [4:26]
Carole Farley (soprano) *
National Youth Orchestra of Spain/José Serebrier
Directed by Paul Baily
rec. live performance, Chester Cathedral, 7 August 2007
NAXOS 2.110230 [84:00]
Experience Classicsonline

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 - see review). 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.
 
Rob Maynard
 

 


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