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Walter BRAUNFELS (1882-1954)
Carnival Overture, Op.22 (1908-11) [8:39]
Two Hölderlin Songs, Op.27* (1916-18) [13:08]
Scottish Fantasy for Viola and Orchestra, Op.47+ (1932-33) [29:37]
Prelude and Fugue, Op.36 (1922-25) [15:48]
*Paul-Armin Edelmann (baritone)
+Barbara Buntrock (viola)
Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz/Gregor Bühl
rec. Philharmonie, Ludwigshafen, 2017
CAPRICCIO C5308 [67:12]

Like several other German composers of Jewish or part-Jewish ancestry whose music was suppressed by the Nazis and largely forgotten after 1945, Walter Braunfels has slowly been rediscovered over the last few years.

Braunfels had musical parents: his mother, who was his first music teacher, was the great niece of no less a composer than Ludwig Spohr. He studied piano in Frankfurt but changed direction at university in Munich, where he studied Law and Economics until he attended a performance of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” which helped him decide to follow a career in music. Like Franz Schmidt, who studied with Leschetizky, Braunfels was also a highly capable pianist so, following his decision, he also went to study with Leschetizky in Vienna, later returning to Munich to focus on learning composition under Felix Mottl and Ludwig Thuille. Prior to the First World War he composed in a variety of forms, including opera. Braunfels was to cultivate a fairly original style which, whilst influenced to some extent by contemporaries such as Richard Strauss, managed to avoid the excesses of Mahler and Wagner. In fact, courtesy of Mottl, Braunfels’ exposure to Berlioz was probably one of the most significant musical influences on him until about 1915.

Braunfels’ opera Princess Brambilla (1906-1908) was to achieve considerable success and he rearranged part of its orchestral music into his Carnival Overture of 1911. It is not as memorable as its namesakes by either Berlioz or Dvorak but is still a fine piece of writing which gets off to a rousing and propulsive start, hinting at a seascape, with pre-echoes of Korngold. The notes make mention of the fact that the score includes a part for heckelphone, a Wagner-inspired, low-register type of oboe, although I wouldn’t have noticed this without my attention being drawn to it.

Braunfels was unlucky to be called up for war service but fortunate enough to avoid the fate of the rest of the officers in his unit in 1918 and as a result of being wounded was allowed to return home. His war experiences made a powerful impression on him, as evidenced by his subsequent conversion to Catholicism and the two “gloomy, radiant and even angry” (as the booklet notes put it) orchestral songs he based on poems by Hӧlderlin: An die Parzen (“To the Fates”) and Der Tod fürs Vaterland (“Death for one’s country”). The first song is, as one might expect, in a minor key but the second, over three times as long, opens in a major key with a lengthy introduction. This second song also has “…a halo of light that moderates the orchestrally grandiose ten minutes”. One could mistake it for Wagner, although there are also moments (e.g. at 7:50) that sound like Mahler. Paul-Armin Edelmann is a baritone who is new to me but clearly going places. He provides splendid performances and often sounds like a deeper and darker Ian Bostridge, especially in the first song.

The 1920s were very successful for Braunfels, who produced a wide variety of significant works, including his opera Die Vӧgel (“The Birds”) in 1920. It was apparently this opera which prompted Adolf Hitler to invite Braunfels to compose an anthem for the Nazi party – an invitation which the composer “indignantly declined”. This refusal, coupled with the fact that his grandfather had been Jewish, was to cast a shadow over the rest of Braunfels’ career. With the rise of the Nazis in the early 1930s, Braunfels’ music was banned as “degenerate” and he was forced into inner exile at his home on Lake Constance, well away from the musical and political centres of Germany. Here he was largely ignored but to some extent protected by his keeping low profile and (possibly) by his earlier celebrity. His Scottish Fantasy, Op.47 – a viola concerto in all but name – appeared in 1933. This was one of his compositions that fell foul of the new Race Laws, but was nevertheless premiered in Switzerland in the December of that year.

Unlike its namesake by Bruch, this work is in one continuous movement, albeit with several sections, and does not proclaim its Scottishness particularly obviously to start with. It opens with a sombre tune before descending into rather Straussian flourishes. Thereafter, the first section is brooding, slightly directionless and probably a bit too long. As a whole, however, the work offers various entertaining nods to the works of contemporaries. In fact, I had to keep pressing the back button to enable me to identify the associated work. Take, for example, the atmosphere around 11:00, when Sibelius’s Tapiola (1926) seems to be recalled; a little later a woodwind passage emphasises this. After 15:00, the music begins to get a move on with a rocking theme in triple time, and shades of Strauss emerge again, notably in the descent theme before the storm from the Alpine Symphony (1915). At 17:00, there is a sudden halt to proceedings before the next section, where we head off again with the viola accompanied by a harp (finally recalling the Bruch Fantasy) leading to a cadenza. Apparently, only one Scottish folksong, “Ca the Yowes” (Call the ewes) is used as a basis for the whole work, but it is barely quoted until the end of this cadenza, which introduces the final section, offering variations on the folksong. In what follows the Scottish roots are more obvious. For example, there has previously been scant evidence of the Scotch snap, but it finally makes an appearance here. (I also detected hints of Till Eulenspiegel!) Everything slows down for a woodwind theme with viola accompaniment (not unlike a passage in Harold in Italy) before there is a valedictory viola theme and a final gallop to the end with pre-echoes of Martinu.

I enjoyed this work. Despite the fact that it is not in-your-face memorable I think it is certainly worth persevering with - and it is probably a rather better work than York Bowen’s earlier Viola Concerto (1906). It is given a lovely performance by Barbara Buntrock - a career violist (rather than a violinist playing the viola) with the right kind of reedy tone, playing an instrument once owned by no less a violist than Lionel Tertis. In fact, the work has also appeared recently on a Dutton recording, coupled with the Piano Concerto, and played by Sarah-Jane Bradley (another career violist) – a performance which was well received by John Quinn (review). I regret that I have not been able to compare the two performances but the present one is pretty good, so I don’t think you can go far wrong with it. It is worth noting that the Dutton performance takes 33:20 and I suspect that the shorter duration on the present disc is probably preferable.

We finish with the Prelude and Fugue of 1925. This opens by sounding rather like the Stokowski orchestration of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue before giving us more hints of the Alpine Symphony - and Tapiola. The two pieces are separated and the Prelude could stand on its own perfectly well. The Fugue opens gently on woodwind and percussion, later joined by pizzicato lower strings, which are subsequently replaced by upper strings alone, with the brass joining in later. We even get a tam-tam. The overall effect is not unlike Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and it builds to a satisfying climax – if without Britten’s genius. Again, it is a highly acceptable performance.

The recording is clear and very well balanced, with no distortion evident. The excellent booklet essay, by Jens F. Laurson, is in German but it is also idiomatically translated into highly readable English, and we even get texts provided for the two songs. That said, I could have done with a little more information about the individual works.

Braunfels continued to compose in isolation. He was to emerge after 1945 to resume his career as a pianist, composer and musical educator, but his music fell into oblivion after his death in 1954. It is strange that the music of Strauss remained popular, despite the taint of Nazi associations, whilst that of Braunfels languished. On the evidence of the present disc, the greater genius of Strauss is undeniable, but the late Romantic world of Braunfels has much to commend it - arguably more so than Schmidt, for example - and I think it well worth exploring, especially on a disc as good as this offering from Capriccio.

Bob Stevenson



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