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AN INTERVIEW WITH JOSÉ SEREBRIER 
Recording Glazunov and Serebrier 
by Gavin Dixon 


In June 2009 I visit José Serebrier at his London residence. We discussed his recent recording sessions for the final instalment of his Glazunov Symphony cycle with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and later moved on to the forthcoming recordings of his own music with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

You're just back from recording in Scotland. How did it go?

Fantastic, best ever! Such a great orchestra. The more they are challenged the more they respond. In the past I've always done one or two symphonies per recording. This time I wanted to finish the series, so I decided to do the last remaining symphonies: numbers one, two, three and nine. At the end I told the orchestra I was delighted we were finished but also sad that it had come to an end. But we'll do other things.

Did it feel like a continuation of the earlier Glazunov sessions, or do each of his symphonies pose specific challenges?

Each one of the Glazunov symphonies are challenges. Numbers one, two and three, being his earliest symphonies, have the greatest challenges. The biggest challenges, technically speaking, are the constant tempo changes. It is as if you turn the page in a book and all of a sudden, from one page to the next, you are in a completely different book. That was his way of being different, of being himself. This is very tricky, but I have found a way to make it happen naturally. Some other conductors, friends, heard some of the previous recordings where this happens and they asked if we did this in separate takes. But that wouldn't work. What I do is first rehearse with the new slower tempo (it usually goes from very fast to very slow) and I tell the orchestra that the trick is to be able to go from a presto to this adagio. Usually they get it right away.

You were a teenage symphonist yourself. Did this help you to get to grips with Glazunov's early teenage symphony?

It just so happens that by sheer coincidence we both wrote our first symphonies when we were sixteen. Mine was premiered by Stokowski, and I am recording it for the first time next week with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. But this hasn't helped me with Glazunov, because Glazunov's First Symphony is totally mature. It is unbelievable. It is no different in structure or orchestration to his most advanced later symphonies. That is why the First Symphony created a big impact at the time. It is a huge work, almost forty minutes long, and it is a masterpiece. So it didn't help me all. But being a composer myself always helps me to conduct other people's music. It helps me to look at it from the inside. The best conductors are usually the ones who also compose, or at least who know how to, which means they have studied orchestration, counterpoint and harmony. I know many conductors who don't know any harmony so they don't know what is really happening. When I study a score I analyse it, and by the time I come to conduct it I know it as if I had written it myself. Like the RSNO and most British orchestras, I sight-read very quickly, which is also very helpful. But people who are good at sight-reading tend to be lazy about studying later on and going deeply into the piece, so I tend to do it methodically. But British orchestras, as you know, are famous all around the world for their incredible sight-reading abilities, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is fantastic at it. And so is their concentration. The way I record is not easy for them. I make them concentrate for the whole session, recording from the first to the last minute, not just when the red light is on. In fact, I don't use a red light. Because sometimes the first try is the best, when it is fresh and they are keen. Then if you keep on trying it, sometimes the standard drops. I play long sections like in a performance, and it shows in the recordings. You know, it is already edited. We had a wonderful producer/engineer, Phil Rowlands, who has done half of my Glazunov series. Three days after the sessions had finished, it was edited. Sometimes an edit can take as long as a year, so we were very lucky.

Glazunov's mature music is credited with reconciling the nationalist and European tendencies in the Russian music of his day. Is this balance already evident in his early symphonies?

Yes, the combination of European and Russian traditions is there from the start. The melodies are very Russian, with many minor sevenths. I mentioned Glazunov to a friend of mine, the Turkish pianist Idil Biret, and she said 'Ah, the Russian Brahms'. I had never thought of it that way, but he is very much like a Russian Brahms, because it is very emotional but also contained … unlike Tchaikovsky, who was emotional but with his heart in his mouth. Glazunov is more like Brahms; the emotion is there, but it remains introverted.

The First Symphony is dedicated to Rimsky-Korsakov and the Third to Tchaikovsky. Are there any stylistic connections?

Rimsky-Korsakov was Glazunov's teacher, and he lived in the Rimsky-Korsakov household. In those days students lived with their teachers. He was definitely influenced by Rimsky-Korsakov in his orchestration, but not his music making. One passage in the First Symphony reflects a great orchestration trick - if you can call it that - that Rimsky-Korsakov used in the Russian Easter Overture. It is not imitation, it is just the idea of scoring the flutes with pizzicato strings, which is beautiful. That's the only relation to Rimsky, otherwise, from the beginning his music was influenced more by Tchaikovsky. Just as Rachmaninov was influenced by Glazunov, you hear echoes. It's a different world but there are definite influences there in the orchestration, in the harmonic relations and so on.

Moving on to the Ninth Symphony, which is an incomplete work. Is it satisfyingly incomplete, like Schubert's Eighth, or frustratingly incomplete, like Mahler's Tenth?

That's a good question, because it is definitely a satisfyingly incomplete work, so much so that I don't know how he could have continued it. It's like an entity. He called it a symphony because he planned it to be his Ninth, but the single movement has an adagio beginning, a main middle section based on a similar motive and an adagio ending. So it really would have been very hard to continue that, and anyway, at that time he stopped composing for many years.

Glazunov himself did not complete the orchestration of the symphony, it was done by Gavril Yudin. Does Yudin's work measure up to Glazunov's mastery of the orchestra?

Not really. That was the only thing I was sorry about. It is heavier. Glazunov could really orchestrate so that everything can be heard. Although comparison with Brahms makes sense, Glazunov's music is much denser. This can make it difficult to communicate, sometimes even with Glazunov's orchestration. And Yudin didn't really get the idea. Everything the double-basses and cellos play he doubled with the tuba, which is nonsense. But other than that he followed Glazunov's directives in terms of orchestration, which the composer had written into the short score. The tuba was unnecessary, so I used it judiciously, otherwise I made no changes.

How has your approach to performing Glazunov changed over the course of this symphony cycle?

Glazunov was very popular in the early part of the 20th century, but then his music went out of fashion. Nowadays it is played more, but there is a serious problem with the way it is often performed. If you play the notes metronomically, nothing happens, it is just square. Mahler was a contemporary of Glazunov, and Mahler's scores are full of indications on tempo flexibility: 'slightly faster but not too fast' or 'a bit slower but not too slow'. Glazunov did none of those, so there is a temptation to play his music in strict tempo. But if you do so, the results are boring. So without taking liberties with the music, I have found a way to make it breathe by imagining what the composer would have liked, as you do with other Romantic composers, Tchaikovsky say, and not playing it with a metronomic beat, which destroys it.

Now you have reached the end of the cycle of Glazunov symphonies, how do you feel the symphonies relate to each other as a cycle?

They are very much united in style. Although some of the symphonies have a definite independent personality, the Fourth Symphony for example is very much an entity, as is the Eighth and the Seventh. But they are all related. After two notes you know it is Glazunov. There is continuity there. He did not develop in the same way as Beethoven, who is in any case unique. You can hear that it is Beethoven from the First Symphony, but it is totally different from the Ninth or the Eighth. Glazunov is more like Brahms in that sense, don't you think?

Yes, and I think that it is significant that both Brahms and Glazunov were working at a time of political and cultural stability at the end of the 19th century. Obviously, the end of Glazunov's life was very different from a political point of view. Do you think it is the composer's sense of personal centeredness or the stability of his environment that creates this continuity?

Again, Glazunov is much like Brahms in this respect. Unlike Beethoven, who was an experimenter, constantly advancing music to the next stage, Glazunov and Brahms were much more steady. Glazunov's First Symphony is not that different from his Ninth. He was 16 when he wrote it, but he had already established a pattern. Mozart is another example, he stayed the course throughout his life. But his was a short life, so each composer is different.

Do you have any plans to continue recording Glazunov's other orchestral works?

We are hoping (and this is not an announcement, it is just a wish) that we can do the complete concertos, which are very interesting. Very late in his life, in fact in his final year, Glazunov wrote a Saxophone Concerto, a work which I am hoping to record. He wrote it for an American saxophonist who commissioned it, Sigurd Raschèr. And in fact, I played it with Raschèr when I was very young. He played it with me in upstate New York, with an orchestra I used to conduct, the Utica Symphony. It was my first orchestra, I was 18 or so, and Raschèr was then at the height of his fame. He had commissioned Glazunov when he was a very young man, and later became a very famous saxophonist. When I met him, in about 1962, he was already an older man. So he came to Utica and played the Glazunov, and that was the first time I heard the name Glazunov. Since then I have played it many times. There are also two piano concertos, which were very famous in the early part of the 20th century. The Rubinstein brothers played them, as did many other Russian pianists. His Cello Concerto is almost unknown, unlike his Violin Concerto, which is his most famous work.

Do you have any ideas about possible soloists you might want to work with?

It's all under discussion at the moment. It's a balancing act between Russian soloists (winners of the Tchaikovsky competition), some great British soloists, maybe an American soloist. We are talking about it.

I understand that you will be in Bournemouth next week recording some of your own works.

Yes, I was studying the scores as you arrived. Some of the works I wrote a long time ago and have to re-learn. It is more difficult to re-learn my own music than somebody else's. I don't study my own music very often, nor do I have much time to compose, but I've had some great opportunities. I was once composer-in-residence with the Cleveland Orchestra under Georg Szell. I won a conducting competition, the Ford Foundation American Conductors Award. I shared the first prize with James Levine. Szell was in the jury and he invited us both to come to Cleveland as his assistant conductors. So I looked at the roster at Cleveland and he had two associates, three principal guests and four assistants. I thought I would never get to conduct. So I thanked the maestro saying I was very honoured, but stayed in New York as Stokowski's associate conductor. Jimmy went and was assistant conductor there for two years. The next year, Szell came back once again, and asked if I'd like to come instead as composer-in-residence. By then Stokowski had announced that he was leaving America and was coming back to the UK - he was already 86. It was a great opportunity, especially since Szell offered me the conductorship of the Cleveland Philharmonic (Cleveland's second orchestra) as an incentive. I had to write music, although the critic with the local paper wrote an article saying that instead of sitting in Cleveland and composing, for which I was being paid, I was going all over the world conducting. So to prove myself I wrote two concertos, one for harp and one for double-bass. The double-bass concerto is one of the works we will be recording next week. It was written at a time of experimentation for me and includes a choir and has the orchestra spread across the hall and among the audience. Only the double-bass is on the stage. It has a narration part, which for the recording will be Simon Callow. The soloist will be Gary Carr, who premiered the work and who plays Koussevitsky's bass, which is a fantastic instrument. So we will be recording this, my First Symphony (the one that Stokowski premiered) and a third piece.

And I notice the score of a Flute Concerto at your piano.

That is my latest work, which is funny to say because I hadn't written anything before that for a long time. It was a commission from Sharon Bezaly for BIS records and it is being recorded in October by the Australian Chamber Orchestra. They play without a conductor, so I'm not going.

But you say that the Flute Concerto marks a return to composing ...

It is my second work in the last year. Sharon Bezaly has been asking me for three years. But what broke the ice was a commission from Mumbai. A film company wrote to my website and told me this incredible story: The producer and director of a film were driving through Mumbai in the middle of the night listening to a classical station. They heard my music and they said 'Ah, that is what we need for this film'. So they stopped on the highway when it was finished hoping to hear the announcement, but it just cut to the news. They called the station in the morning, who said their night time programmes were taped ahead and that if they wanted to know what the piece was they would have to check themselves at the studio. So they went personally, they had to really research. They found out that it was my music and came to see me in New York. There were two scenes that they wanted me to write before the filming. It is about a Western style composer who is blind and dictates his music. I wrote the music, but then the crash came, and they couldn't make the film. They might do it one day but they can't do it now. So I have this music, which I have re-titled as Music for an Imaginary Film and this is the other piece we will be recording next week.

José Serebrier's recordings of Glazunov's First, Second, Third and Ninth Symphonies with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra will be released by Warner Classics in August 2009. His recordings of his own First Symphony, Double-Bass Concerto and Music for an Imaginary Film with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra are scheduled for release by Naxos in August 2010.

© Gavin Dixon, 2009 

 


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