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Walter BRAUNFELS (1882-1954)
Don Juan, Op. 35 (1922-24) [33:50]
Symphonic Variations on an Old French Nursery Song, Op 15 (1909) [16:12]
Philharmonisches Orchester Altenberg-Gera/Markus L Frank
rec. 19 March 2013, Konzertsaal, Bühnen der Stadt Gera
CAPRICCIO C5250 [50:02]

The music of Walter Braunfels is making slow but fairly steady headway, at least on CD. I first heard his music through the Decca recording of his opera Die Vogel (1913-1919). That, I see, was also the first Braunfels encounter of my colleague, Stuart Sillitoe, as he mentioned when reviewing the most interesting live recording of Verkündigung (1933-1935). Other compositions by Braunfels have appeared on disc, though I’ve not yet heard them. These include a disc of orchestral music which contains the extravagantly-titled Phantastiche Erscheinungen eines Themas von Hector Berlioz - ‘Fantastic Appearances of a Theme by Hector Berlioz’ (review ). That’s a title that gives Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses a run for its money. There’s also an archive recording, conducted by Günter Wand, of the substantial Te Deum that Braunfels wrote in the early 1920s (review).

The main work here is Don Juan, which was premiered in 1924 by Wilhelm Furtwängler, no less. He was but one of several important conductors who performed works by Braunfels in the 1920s and early 1930s. The piece is scored for a large orchestra: on the website of Universal Edition the scoring is given as woodwind 3/3/4/4; brass 4/3/3/1; percussion, harp piano and strings. I noticed that the duration of the piece is listed there as 24:33, which is considerably shorter than the playing time of this performance. Since the work is new to me I’m not in a position to say if Markus L Frank‘s tempi are unduly expansive but it certainly doesn’t feel as if they are.

The piece is subtitled by Universal “a classical-romantical phantasmagoria”. Unlike Richard Strauss, Braunfels does not, so far as I’m aware, make any attempt to illustrate events in the life of Don Juan. Instead his piece takes the form of an Introduction, Theme and seven Variations. The theme is not an original one – or perhaps I should say themes. The first time I listened to the disc I did so without first reading the notes so the main theme, when it arrived (track 1, 2:05) was a delightful surprise: it’s the so-called ‘Champagne aria’ from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Perhaps I should have expected this because there are allusions to the theme in the preceding brief introduction – they’re obvious when you know what you’re listening for. Braunfels makes particular use of the first six notes of Mozart’s theme. He also uses at least two other motifs from Don Giovanni – one of them is the opening phrase of ‘Là ci darem la mano’ – but these fulfil a subsidiary function.

The variations that follow are inventive and resourcefully scored. The music is romantic and, in the best sense, traditional in style and tome and should appeal to anyone who enjoys Brahms, Franz Schmidt or Strauss. I appreciated the gaiety and brilliance of Variation III after which it’s good that the pace slows so that we get the contrast of the lyrical Variation IV. In Variation V the music takes on a darker hue and is more dramatic in nature. Once more Braunfels slows down for the next section; Variation VI is more expansive in nature and contains some intriguing and atmospheric writing. One thing that I like about this score is that the listener is regularly reminded, if only subtly, of the material on which the composer is basing his variations. The scoring is effective, exploring the resources of the late-Romantic symphony orchestra.

Symphonic Variations on an Old French Nursery Song is one of the first two orchestral scores that Braunfels wrote. On the face of it the theme is less memorable and therefore the composer’s skill in using it as a point of departure is less obvious. However, that’s probably because the theme is unfamiliar to me. In any case, the notes quote some comments by Braunfels which include the following statement: “As for the little variations, from the theme they often take only a short motif that indicates the theme like a pointing finger”. I think Don Juan is the more interesting of the two works – and it’s certainly more ambitious than the earlier piece. However, I enjoyed the Symphonic Variations very much.

It’s never easy to judge the calibre of a performance when the music is previously unknown. However, I’ve listened to this disc several times and the playing of the Philharmonisches Orchester Altenberg-Gera seems assured, skilful and committed. I find the performances under Markus L Frank convincing.

The fact that the performances were recorded in one day and in association with Deutschlandradio Kultur may suggest that they were recorded as live though there’s no evidence of the presence of an audience. The sound is good; it has plenty of body and you can hear lots of detail. There are useful notes by Felix Eckerle.

These are interesting pieces which are very well worth hearing, especially Don Juan. I doubt we shall get another recording in the foreseeable future so it’s good to report that Braunfels has been well served here. Admirers of his music will certainly want this CD but it would also make quite a good starting point for anyone who wants to investigate him for the first time.

John Quinn



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