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Walter BRAUNFELS (1882-1954)
Hexensabbat (Witches’ Sabbath) für Klavier und Orchester Op 8 (1906) [16:58]
Konzertstück für Klavier und Orchester, Op 64 (1946) [16:42]
Hebridentänze (Hebridean Dances) für Klavier und Orchester, Op 70 (1950/51) [31:55]
Tatjana Blome (piano)
Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz / Gregor Bühl
rec. 2017/18, Philharmonie, Ludwigshafen.
CAPRICCIO C5345 [65:35]

The music of Walter Braunfels has been enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years, particularly on disc, and Capriccio have been one of the prime movers through a series of valuable releases. I’ve reviewed some of the Braunfels issues from a variety of labels and I’ve bought quite a few other discs. I’ve been intrigued and generally impressed by what I’ve heard.

This release from Capriccio contains three works, all for piano and orchestra, two of which were completely new to me. Consequently, I’ve had to rely for much of my background information on the booklet essay. Fortunately, this essay, which is by my sometime MusicWeb International colleague, Jens F. Laurson, is extremely useful.

Hexensabbat was Braunfels’ first fully-fledged orchestral composition. We learn from the notes that it was thought to be both unfinished and lost until the score turned up as recently as 2012. Jens Laurson describes the piece as being “for small orchestra and piano” and I’m sure he’s right about the size of the band, though the scoring sounds quite full to me. It’s a single-movement work, here helpfully divided into a separate track for each of its four sections. At the start the orchestration has a spooky tint to it before the piano and orchestra launch into a propulsive and somewhat fierce dance-like episode. This first section (Bewegt) eventually becomes quite full-blooded and driven towards the end before it subsides into a darkly glowing Andante. This provides much-needed contrast with what has gone before, though eventually Braunfels builds the music to a fairly powerful climax. Two short sections of quick music (Mäßig bewegt and Breiter. Rascher) bring the work to an end. These seemed to me to evoke what I might term Gothic liveliness. Jens Laurson describes Hexensabbat pretty neatly as “a grumbling, heavy-romantic work in which one can hear all the forefathers of German romanticism, from Beethoven to Wagner (in particular Rheingold)”. I found it to be an interesting and atmospheric score though I think that, with the possible exception of the end of the first section, it lacks the wildness that its subject matter would suggest. There’s no evidence that it was performed during Braunfels’ lifetime and, like the Hebridentänze it’s here receiving its first recording. It’s good that Hexensabbat has been rescued from the total neglect into which it had sunk.

The Konzertstück was among the first works that Braunfels composed after his self-imposed internal exile during the Nazi regime. Braunfels was an accomplished pianist and he himself was the soloist in its first performance. It’s also a single-movement work but it falls into four sections which, helpfully, are separately tracked. This seems to me to be a work that is quite serious in disposition. Jens Laurson refers to the “firm delicacy” of the piece. The third of its four sections, marked Langsam, is introduced by a lengthy piano solo – the nature of which evidences the composer’s pianistic prowess – and, indeed, it’s the piano that dominates this section of the work: the orchestra is restricted to a few interjections, though the short climax towards the episode’s end is delivered by the orchestra. The finale is quite extrovert in character. The present performance is a good one and confirmed for me the favourable impression I formed of the piece when first I heard it (review).

Scotland seems to have held something of a fascination for Braunfels, though I’m not quite sure why. In 1932/33 he composed his Schottische Phantasie for Viola and Orchestra, Op 47 (review) and he turned to Scotland – or, more correctly, to the Hebrides – for his Hebridentänze, his penultimate work. I don’t know if he quoted any Hebridean tunes in the work in the way that the traditional tune Ca’ the yowes was the thematic basis for the Schottische Phantasie. However, there is a sense of traditional melodies on several occasions during the Hebridentänze, Of the three pieces on this present disc this one struck me as the best and most interesting; much of it has a cheerful disposition.

The first of the five sections (Lebhaft) is mainly lively in tempo and features a good deal of nimble writing for the solo piano and imaginative, deft orchestration. The second section (Mäßige Achtel) is slow, atmospheric and lyrical. I may be wrong but the thematic material seems to bear a strong resemblance to There’s no place like home. This section is very appealing. In the third section (Lebhaft), after a short, bustling opening the piano introduces a dancing melody which has quite a Hebridean feel to it, I think. The fourth section (Sehr ruhig) is the longest and also, I believe, the most original. It begins almost dolefully with a repeated five-note motif in the orchestra against which the piano provides some decoration. The music is introspective and the orchestral scoring is strange, atmospheric and a bit spooky. This is all very intriguing to hear and then at 5:00 we’re taken by surprise: the music bursts into life and a swifter passage of music follows based on a sturdy Highland-sounding dance. The mood of the section’s opening returns at 7:48 and it is largely in this vein that the remainder of the section is played out. In these closing minutes I wondered if Braunfels was suggesting Hebridean ghosts. The final section of the work (Finale) may not be exactly carefree in nature but it’s certainly extrovert and often high-spirited. I doubt that Hebridentänze is ever likely to become a repertoire piece but it’s well worth hearing, so this recording is very welcome.

The music on this disc is too good to languish in obscurity and it’s good news that these three works have been gathered together on one disc. Even better, two of the pieces, Hexensabbat and Hebridentänze are new additions to the growing Braunfels discography. The performances are strong ones. Tatjana Blome is a fine soloist and she receives sterling support from Gregor Bühl and the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz. The recorded sound is very good and, as I’ve already indicated, Jens F. Laurson provides a valuable introduction both to the composer and to the works in hand in his notes. Admirers of Walter Braunfels’ music should not hesitate.

John Quinn

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