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Serly: Six Dance Designs / Freeman, Czech SO

Release Date: 10/24/2006 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 876   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Tibor Serly
Performer:  Lynn KaoCarla Trynchuk
Conductor:  Paul Freeman
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Czech Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 0 Hours 53 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SERLY 6 Dance Designs for Orchestra. Concertino 3x3. 1 Concerto for Violin and Wind Symphony Paul Freeman, cond; Lynn Kao (pn); 1 Carla Trynchuck (vn); Czech Natl SO ALBANY TROY 876 (53:05)

Tibor Serly is mostly remembered today as the friend of the recently deceased Bartók who, at Bartók’s surviving wife’s request, completed the unfinished Third Piano Concerto and the Viola Read more Concerto.

Hungarian-American Serly (1901–1978) was a fine composer in his own right. Between 1922 and 1924, he studied at the Budapest Academy of Music with Zoltán Kodály (composition), Leo Weiner (orchestration), and Jenö Hubay (violin). His prowess on both the violin and the viola was such that he played viola in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner (1926–1927), violin in the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowsky (1928–1935) and was appointed assistant conductor by the same in 1933. He also played violin in the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini (1937–1938). Along the way, he found time to distinguish himself as a teacher and musical theorist.

Serly first met Bartók in Hungary in 1925, and struck up a friendship based on mutual admiration that lasted until Bartók’s death in 1945. When the Bartóks arrived in America in 1940, it was Serly who met them at the docks. From that point on, he served as Bartók’s musical confidant and amanuensis. Serly’s completion of Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto was a comparatively straightforward task. Bartók left only the last 17 bars of the finale incomplete. There were, however, fairly complete sketches for those final bars. The completion of the Viola Concerto, however, was of a completely different magnitude. Bartók’s short score (with suggestions for instrumentation here and there penciled in) was a mess. He was struggling with whether to cast the work in four movements or in three, and this question was largely unresolved at the point of his death. Serly’s hand in the production of the William Primrose-commissioned Viola Concerto was, of necessity, far heavier. Subsequent musicologists who have studied both Bartók’s sketches and Serly’s performing edition have come to the conclusion that Serly successfully realized and honored Bartók’s intentions.

As to why Serly’s own compositions are largely forgotten, the anonymous liner notes to this release (from which I have shamelessly cribbed a great deal of the above biographical information) posit the theory that he was simply overshadowed by Bartók. This seems to hold true. Both composers worked at distilling the folk music of their native Hungary (and that of surrounding nations), and recomposing it anew in a freshly illuminating 20th-century language, making comparison with the brilliant Bartók inevitable. Serly, who spent a far greater proportion of his life in America than had Bartók, often complicates his own compositions by the integration of jazz elements. This is especially true in the delicious Six Dance Designs. Add to this that Serly had so many other irons in the fire as an esteemed teacher and musical theorist that he never quite got around to promoting his own compositions.

The music on this release is quirky, ruggedly direct, harmonically adventurous, and brilliantly scored. The indefatigable Paul Freeman and his Czech National Symphony Orchestra provide fine advocacy. Incidentally, Freeman offers another Serly piece—the Concerto for Viola and Orchestra on Centaur 2788, reviewed elsewhere.

Six Dance Designs for Orchestra was composed in 1932–1933. As mentioned above, it integrates American idioms—“Tap Dance” and “Fox Trot” are the titles of two of its sections. A refreshing and decidedly un-Gershwinesque sense of American jazz informs this score and is quite ingeniously integrated into its palpably Hungarian context. African-American Paul Freeman revels in its syncopations and manages to make his Czech forces swing in ways that would make Duke Ellington smile.

The Concertino 3x3 (read as “Three times Three”) was composed some 30 years later and is, therefore, the most recent piece on this offering. Its structure is unconventional. Each of its three movements is divided into three sections—one for piano solo, one for orchestra alone, and one for the combination of piano and orchestra. The liner notes mistakenly regard the first two sections as separate compositions that are combined in the final section. In point of fact, the second section is always a closely reasoned variation of the piano-alone opening, so the combination of the two in the third section, though complex, is less problematically challenging to the conductor, piano soloist, and his forces than the notes imply. This quibble aside, Serly presents a cleverly subdivided piano concerto that resolves itself into the traditional three-movement scheme—a moderately fast movement followed by a slow movement followed by a quick finale. American pianist Lynn Kao is up to its demands, despite its often-unidiomatic piano writing. This piece, as in the case of all the music on this release, demands active listening, but given so, will reward the effort handsomely.

I found the quintessentially Hungarian Concerto for Violin and Wind Symphony, composed between 1953 and 1958, the most striking piece on this release. The violin-writing is grippingly idiomatic, and the underlying wind-writing is both original and resourceful in terms of timbre and balance. Canadian violinist Carla Trynchuk handles the relentlessly demanding solo part effortlessly. Razor-sharp attacks, impeccable intonation, and, where necessary, a fine realization of the piece’s soaring lyrical moments distinguish her performance. Given the evidence here, I’d like to hear her take on Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto. One can easily spot Bartok’s influence in this work. But it also raises the question of how much Serly do we find in his illustrious compatriot?

The sound is on the dryly analytical side, and one may take exception to the spotlighting of the soloist in the Concerto for Violin and Wind Symphony, but, on balance, it serves to provide an almost microscopic view of the rich horizontal aspect of Serly’s writing. In sum, this is a significant release that not only fills a phonographic void, but also does so with distinction.

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Works on This Recording

Six Dance Designs for Orchestra by Tibor Serly
Conductor:  Paul Freeman
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Czech Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Notes: Composition written: USA (1932 - 1933). 
Concertino 3x3 by Tibor Serly
Performer:  Lynn Kao (Piano)
Conductor:  Paul Freeman
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Czech Symphony Orchestra
Notes: Composition written: 1964 - 1965. 
Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra by Tibor Serly
Performer:  Carla Trynchuk (Violin)
Conductor:  Paul Freeman
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Czech Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Notes: Composition written: USA (1953 - 1958). 

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