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Walter BRAUNFELS (1882-1954)
Piano Concerto, Op.21 (1910-11) [32:02]
Ariels Gesang, Op.18 (1910) (after Shakespeare’s The Tempest) [10:08]
Schottische Phantasie for Viola and Orchestra, Op.47 (1932-33) [33:20]
Victor Sangiorgio (piano)
Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola)
BBC Concert Orchestra/Johannes Wildner
premiere recordings: Concerto & Phantasie
rec. Watford Colosseum, 15-17 April 2013. DDD.

Symphonische Variationen über ein altfranzösisches Kinderlied, Op. 15 (1909) [15:46]
Sinfonia Brevis, Op 69 (1948) [33:17]
Suite from Der Gläserne Berg, Op 39b (1929) [24:49]
BBC Concert Orchestra/Johannes Wildner
premiere recordings
rec. 8-10 April 2014, Abbey Road Studio No 1, London. DDD

Not long ago I reviewed Vol. 3 in Johannes Wildner’s survey of orchestral music by Braunfels for Dutton Epoch. I so much enjoyed that disc that it set me scurrying off to get hold of the previous two instalments. As it happens, we don’t seem to have reviewed Vol. 2 though Vol. 1 was included in Download News 2014/10.

Almost all the music on these two discs has not been recorded before and all of it was therefore new to me with one exception: the Symphonische Variationen über ein altfranzösisches Kinderlied, Op. 15. Dutton claim their recording of this piece as a world premiere and surely they did so in good faith though another recording, conducted by Markus L Frank for Capriccio (review) was set down in 2013 but not issued, I’m pretty certain, until after the Dutton version had appeared. Anyway, let’s not split hairs; it’s good that collectors should have a choice.

Volume 1 contains two big works for solo instruments with orchestra. Sandwiched in between, however, is a work which, while it may be somewhat slender in comparison to the other two pieces, is one which in some ways impressed me most. Ariels Gesang features light, diaphanous scoring and its placement on the disc is ideal for it comes as something of a palate-cleanser after the big-boned piano concerto. The piece was inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the orchestral scoring is quite restrained but very effective. The annotator refers to Berlioz and Mendelssohn and these reference points are appropriate. The music distils a delicate, magical atmosphere which I appreciated very much.

In complete contrast the Piano Concerto is a big, public work. I see from the notes that Braunfels, a skilled pianist, wrote it as a vehicle for himself and he played the solo part at the first performance in 1911. The other noteworthy piece of information is that after a performance the following year he changed the title of the work to "Concerto for Orchestra and Piano" and that’s significant since the orchestra is prominent throughout. Indeed, in the second movement long-breathed orchestral lines to which the piano contributes an accompaniment are the major feature. In truth the soloist is not dominant in this movement, which is a piece of impressive nobility. The pianist gets plenty of chance to shine in the outer movements however. The predominant tone of the first movement is assertive although there are some more relaxed lyrical episodes as well. The finale makes use of an 18th century song Marlbrough s’en va-t-en guerre. There are plenty of display opportunities for the soloist but, in keeping with the composer’s revised title for the work, there’s a major contribution from the orchestra. The work doesn’t break much new ground but I enjoyed it nonetheless and Victor Sangiorgio is a fine advocate for the solo part.

The Schottische Phantasie has concerto-like dimensions. It’s cast in five continuous sections though the middle three between them add up only to about 7 minutes. The Scottish folk song Ca’ the yowes is the thematic basis for much of the work – and is especially in evidence in the fifth section, which is in effect a set of variations on the tune. The fourth section includes a cadenza around the tune, at the start and end of which the piano is accompanied by the harp. I enjoyed much of this work – and especially the fifth section – but I wasn’t sure about the first section. That’s the longest part of the work, playing here for just under 14 minutes, and I have to admit I didn’t find it terribly easy to follow Braunfels’ arguments. The soloist is kept very busy but I wasn’t sure that it was all to good effect. The orchestral parts were lost for many years, it seems, and only came to light at the turn of this century. It’s good that they did for this is a very interesting piece and Sarah-Jane Bradley, who I bet learned it specially for the recording, is a fine soloist.
Volume 2 contains a shrewdly chosen programme that allows us to see different aspects of Braunfels. I’d heard the Symphonische Variationen before, courtesy of Markus L Frank and Capriccio. I enjoyed it then, as I did on this occasion. Apparently, it’s Braunfels’ earliest performable orchestral score and Dutton’s notes speculate that it may not have been performed between 1918 and the time when the two recent recordings were made, in 2013 and 2014. That’s a shame because it’s a most attractive piece and I’ve welcomed the chance to get to know it better through a second recording. The variations are inventive and every section of the orchestra gets a thorough work-out. You sense that Braunfels was enjoying the experience of exploring and exploiting a large orchestra.

Don’t let the title Sinfonia Brevis mislead you; Braunfels’ Op. 69 may only last for just over half an hour but it’s a big, serious piece and here we experience a composer who has been through a lot in the four decades that had passed since the Symphonische Variationen. True, Braunfels was able to get through the Nazi period in quiet obscurity but he still lost his posts when the Nazis came to power and he must have been forever fearful that his ‘quiet obscurity’ would be shattered. A contemporary critic is quoted in the booklet, commenting on the musical distance travelled between the Te Deum (1920-21) and the Sinfonia Brevis. One snippet caught my eye: “This is not only the wisdom of age but the experience of hardship and horror.”

There’s a good deal of tension in the first movement, which is strongly projected and powerful. The slow movement, the longest in the work is very serious of tone. Here Braunfels voices some strong emotions. It’s an impressive piece of work. There follows a livewire scherzo with a much slower, rather gentle trio. The finale opens with dark-hued fugal writing. This movement has the most ‘modern’ harmonies and the climax (around 6:00) is very powerful. However, after that the music dies back and achieves a quiet conclusion.

This programme of contrasts then offers us the suite which Braunfels compiled in 1929 for a Christmas play produced the previous year. Der Gläserne Berg (The Glass Mountain) is a fairy tale and it’s very helpful indeed that the notes include a short commentary by the composer on the suite in which he relates the action of the play to the music he extracted for the suite. Here the orchestral forces are smaller than what we’ve heard in the other two works – single winds and brass, timpani percussion, harp, piano, celesta, harmonium and strings. There’s a Prelude which, at 7:12, is the longest movement. Each of the other eight movements plays for no more than two or three minutes. Braunfels’ music is inventive, entertaining and delightfully scored. This suite is a real charmer and I thoroughly enjoyed making its acquaintance.

I’ve heard a good few discs of music by Walter Braunfels now and I’m most impressed by what I’ve heard so far. It’s great that Dutton Epoch and Capriccio are between them offering us a chance to hear quite a lot of his music because its neglect has been unjustified.

On the two present discs Johannes Wildner and the BBC Concert Orchestra are persuasive advocates for his music and the recordings are uniformly very good. The notes by Jürgen Schaarwächter, are informative.

If you’ve not heard any of Walter Braunfels’ music before then I’d suggest that Dutton’s Volume 2 is a good place to start, not least because it shows different aspects of this composer. I hope there will be more instalments in this excellent Dutton Epoch series.

John Quinn



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