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Luis de Freitas BRANCO (1890-1955)
Symphony No. 2 (1926-7) [43.32]
After a reading of Guerra Junqueiro (1909) [10.07]
Artificial Paradises (1910) [14.10]
RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra/Álvaro Cassuto
rec. National Concert Hall, Dublin, Ireland, 7-8 April, 18 June 2008
NAXOS 8.572059 [67.49]
Experience Classicsonline

“Luis de Freitas Branco was the towering figure in Portuguese music during the first half of the twentieth century” so proclaims, triumphantly, the rear insert of this CD. This is the second volume of what, one assumes, will be a complete series of the four symphonies of this little known composer. Why little known? Well, as a friend of mine said, possibly thinking of the Eurovision song contest “Did anything good, (musically), come out of Portugal?” It certainly did in the sixteenth century, but with this series and the CDs on Marco Polo of orchestral works by Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988) a picture of twentieth century Portuguese music before and after the Second War is beginning to emerge.

I missed Volume 1 which included the First Symphony so am as it were, a Freitas Branco virgin. I started therefore with the huge Second Symphony which falls into the usual four movements with a Scherzo placed third. In the first movement - in a sort of sonata-form - the main material is stated almost at the start. It is a fragment of Gregorian chant which is more fully expressed in a grand style at the end of the work. On the whole I found that I lost interest during this movement; the ideas were weak. However the slow movement which follows with its somewhat modal melodic lines is very attractive and delicately orchestrated. The Scherzo appears to have been influenced by Bruckner but although I have never heard this music before I do feel that this performance is too ponderous. The finale is a suitable summation. Harmonically, considering the date, the work is unadventurous even dull at times, but taken on its own terms the final effect is pleasing and generally fulfilling.

The conductor Álvaro Cassuto has spent many years promoting and recording Portuguese music and he writes the fascinating and helpfully analytical booklet notes. He comments that Freitas Branco’s “early works reflect the influence of various musical styles which he tried out until settling for what he called a neo-classical romantic style”. By “early” I suspect he means about 1910 when the composer was 20 and had not long finished his studies with, of all people, Engelbert Humperdinck. ‘Artificial Paradises’ is of that date and “is generally considered … as Freitas Branco’s masterpiece”. What a pity that the composer did not really exploit this language further. Based on Thomas de Quincey’s autobiographical essay ‘Confessions of an Opium Eater’ this is an impressionist tone-painting which must have seemed very modern at the time. It is a work of polytonality with a lack of clear, conventional form. Its melodies often lead nowhere, is evocative of the mist in a Monet painting and has definite touches of Debussy. It is most sensitively played and a terrific highlight, having heard it, I immediately wanted to hear it again.

In between these two contrasting works there is one other on this CD, that is ‘After a reading of Guerra Junqueiro’ written the previous year when he was 19. What an astonishing work it is for a teenager. It is quite individual and wonderfully and colourfully orchestrated. Although the booklet notes say nothing about him, Junqueiro, who died in 1923, was a lawyer, journalist, author and poet. What is odd about the piece and what I really cannot work out is why there are several almost-quotations from Strauss’ ‘Till Eulenspiegel’ and ‘Don Juan’. There is nothing in any of these works by Branco that is in any way ‘Iberian’. The Portuguese have often said how distinctive they are and want to be. Freitas Branco trained not in Madrid but in Berlin and Paris; and Strauss and Debussy at this time were all the rage hence their strong influence on the young composer. Theirs was an influence which by the time of his 2nd Symphony he wanted to throw off in the hope that he might discover himself. Unfortunately, for me, I prefer him as a young man attuned to new developments rather than to how he became once he had settled in his homeland after the Great War.

So with these reservations then, this disc becomes an interesting buy, extremely well played by the Irish Orchestra. If the experts are right and ‘Artificial Paradises’ is Luis de Freitas Branco’s finest work then don’t await the remaining discs because this is the one to go for. 

Gary Higginson

see also review by Rob Barnett


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