Luís de FREITAS BRANCO (1890-1955)
Orchestral Works - Volume 3
Symphony No. 3 (1944) [46.19]
The Death of Manfred for strings (1906) [9.55]
Suite Alentejana No. 2 (1927) [15.58]
RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra/Álvaro Cassuto
rec. National Concert Hall, Dublin 20-21 April 2009
NAXOS 8.572370 [72:13]

Writing as I am from a wet and windy Britain I see Portugal as a country where the sun meets the sea and where a relaxing holiday in wall-to-wall heat is the main attraction. I know very little about 20th century Portuguese classical music. True, Symphonies by Joly Braga Santos did come out and I purchased two (Marco Polo 8.225233-Symphony No 4 and 8.223879 Symphonies 1 and 5). Luis de Freitas Branco was his teacher and is, as the booklet notes written by conductor Álvaro Cassuto himself remind us “the most important Portuguese composer of the 20th Century”. This then is volume three of a series and with a 4th Symphony already in the can we await without too much delay the next volume. I reviewed the previous one of the 2nd Symphony (Naxos 8.572059) and as a result sought out Symphony 1 (Naxos 8.570785) so I am beginning to feel that I am getting to know the composer’s music.

The 3rd Symphony is the biggest canvas so far, just exceeding the previous symphony but only by about three minutes. Although completed in 1944, it can in many ways be heard as a wartime symphony. Apparently the composer had been working on it for well over ten years. It falls into four movements. The extra-long first is in sonata-form. After a short slow introduction there is a defiant first theme and an elegiac even pastoral second theme. There is also a rather liturgical one, a little like the Gregorian chant melody used in the 2nd Symphony, which here is harmonized largely in fourths and fifths. These ideas are dwelt upon and brooded over throughout. I found the drama of it always gripping and always retaining my attention.

The main theme of the second movement also in sonata-form, rather like that of the 2nd Symphony is rather melancholic, modal and folk-like being stated at one point, in a very English sort of a way, on the cor anglais. It is a very beautiful movement and one to listen to regularly. The Third is just marked as an Allegro and I hasten to add not sounding like a Scherzo, I find it the least successful although its ternary form is clear. The finale is strong and noble with an amazingly mysterious Lento section three minutes before the work ends in a joyous and determined dance. The word ‘magisterial’ used at the back of the disc seems a good summing up of the overall feel of this impressive work.

In contrast to the symphony the brief but very moving ‘The Death of Manfred’ is slow and generally quiet throughout. Marked to be played ‘Larghetto doloroso’ it is scored for string sextet played here however by the rich-sounding strings of the RTÉ Orchestra. When he was as young as fifteen no doubt under the spell of Byron, Freitas Branco composed his first orchestral work ‘Manfred, Dramatic Symphony for soloists, chorus and orchestra’; it seems however that this work was never a part of the larger one and that this one was played in Lisbon in 1906. Its mood is utterly mournful with two major climaxes. It deserves to be much better known.

The Suite Alentejano No 2 is as enjoyable and charming and as beautifully orchestrated as the First Suite of 1917 (couple with the 1st Symphony). They are similarly planned with an opening Prelude evoking the expansive landscape of the Alentejano district where the composer had a large estate. Next comes, in both suites, an Intermezzo. Álvaro Cassuto, as well as being the conductor and general scholar on this composer, tells us that on the “occasion of the work’s premiere in 1941 in Porto, programme notes were supplied “probably not sanctioned by the composer” but which said that the music described “a group of women seated in a circle, offer a picturesque scene. They work and sing a happy song””. The third movement in both suites emphasizes dancing. In the first it was a Fandango and here we are “At a fair” using a few local popular melodies and with, towards the end, an “increase of rhythm and colour” reverberating into an exciting conclusion.

I found myself wondering why this project to record the Freitas Branco symphonies was not undertaken by a Portuguese orchestra like the fine Gulbenkian Orchestra based in Lisbon which I heard last year. If they have played the piece under Cassuto, and they should have done, then why aren’t they in the Naxos recording studio? Anyway the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra are wonderful. They’re obviously quick readers and more importantly quick ‘understanders’ of the style and language. Álvaro Cassuto is certainly on good terms with them and understands what the composer is trying to say. Not only is the music of value but at Naxos price this CD is a gift and surely recommends itself.

Gary Higginson

The music is highly recommendable and at Naxos price a gift.