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Peter MENNIN (1923-1983)
Symphony No. 9 (1981) [21:18]
José SEREBRIER (b.1938)
Poema Elegiaco
(1958) [8:30]
William LEE (1929-2011)
Veri for orchestra [25:20]
- concerto for double bass and orchestra (1969) [13:25]
Gary Karr (double bass and narrator)
Adelaide Symphony Orchestra; Orchestre Symphonique de la RTBF Bruxelles; Plainfield Symphony Orchestra/José Serebrier
rec. Mennin, Serebrier, Lee (1983); Nueve (1971)

This is something of a miscellany with the composer-conductor José Serebrier providing the cohesion across four works with a North American heritage. The case for issue and coupling is bolstered by these being rare survivals from vinyl Hades. Try finding these recordings anywhere else. They were released first on the Finnadar (90937-1) and Dharma (GFL-1014), LP labels, companies now pretty much forgotten.

The United States composer Peter Mennin was born Mennini. Unlike his brother Louis (1920-2000), also a composer and one who wrote two symphonies - he discarded the final Italianate 'i', becoming simply Mennin. He was a student of the composers Howard Hanson (who recorded Mennin's Fifth Symphony) and Bernard Rogers - the latter also well worth exploring - at the Eastman School of Music. His music is not in the looser romantic mode indulged by his teachers. Rather he is up there with his contemporary William Schuman whom he succeeded as Head of the Juilliard. His music has an appealing steeliness, a mildly caustic tone and melodic fibre. He is not above lissom invention as the compact Ninth Symphony's Adagio arioso shows. It's preceded by a brooding Lento heavy with foreboding and the sense of being close to the edge of heaving cataclysm. The propulsive desperation of the final Presto tumultuoso ruthlessly delivers the cataclysm. It was written at the height of the Cold War and within two years of Mennin's death so its tone is understandable.

Mennin wrote nine symphonies of which the first two (1941, 1947) were withdrawn. He has not been overlooked by the recording studios and there are some coupling coincidences to note. For example his Third and Seventh symphonies have been together twice (review review review) as have the Fifth and Sixth (review review). The Fourth Symphony for chorus and orchestra carries the title The Cycle and dates from 1947-8. It was recorded on Desto in 1973 and then reissued once on Phoenix PHCD107 in 1994. The Eighth is also there courtesy of New World Records NW 371-2 (1989) performed by Christian Badea directing the Columbus Symphony. The latter disc also includes the only other recording of Mennin's Ninth.

Serebrier's Poema Elegiaco began life as Funeral March, a movement from a much larger work, Partita, which was premiered in Washington in 1960. Partita was to have been recorded complete by the Louisville Orchestra but proved too long for one LP. The Funeral March, revised and with a new title, Poema Elegiaco was given its first performance in the early 1960s by Stokowski. Serebrier was a Stokowski protégé. You can hear Stokowski conducting Serebrier's First Symphony in 1956 on Guild. This score is predominantly a gloomy, desolate Elegy. It is potently atmospheric with a tension that arises from juxtaposing a ruthless gruffness and violence (2:52) with gentle lamentation voiced by the strings. It feels predictive of the Kennedy assassination in 1963.

The longest piece here is William Franklin Lee's Veri for orchestra, a score that takes Truth as its subject. It is in five movements: 1. Sol; 2. Luna; 3. Terra; 4. Elementi; 5. Homo sapiens. Lee was a jazz pianist, composer, academic and author who in his distinguished career carved out a place for jazz in music graduate courses. The music has a questing tone (try Elementi) and is fairly approachable, making sparing use of dissonance in much the same way as Vaughan Williams uses it in his Apollyon music. It is tender at times as in Luna and pumpingly rhythmic as in Terra. The longest movement is the last. The notes tell us that this movement, which references ideas from earlier on, is symbolic of the rise of man. It ends in statuesque rhetoric. I do not know any other pieces by Lee but this one is promising.

Serebrier's Nueve is a thing of enigmas. If there is a need to find a category or shelf section then 'weird' might do it. It's interesting. The score is unusual with a narrator, who contributes sparingly, and a solo double bass. Karr is a hero of the instrument (he is also the narrator here) and has done for the double bass what John Fletcher did for the tuba. He makes it sing which it does here through some far-flung and outlandish contributions from the orchestra. It's all very skilfully done, dissonant, jazzy-experimental, drum-pummelling, cauchemar, shuddering, strobe lights and audience participation. It's the toughest thing I have heard from Serebrier as composer (review review). While difficult to gain a perspective without a full survey of his music this strikes me as a remote outlier in his catalogue and one very much of its time. The notes refer to it in the same breath as the pre-digital "multi-media" experiments of the 1960s and 1970s. Sounds about right to me.

This is a sensationally varied disc with music wild and woolly alongside scores that reach out to the listener with intelligent invitation rather than challenge. The liner-notes are adequately helpful. Variations in acoustic and orchestral identity are no obstacle to this particular journey of discovery.

Rob Barnett



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