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Walter BRAUNFELS (1882-1954)
Don Gil von den Grünen Hosen, Op 35/2 – Prelude (1921-23) [6:11]
Divertimento for radio orchestra, Op 42 (1929) [20:09]
Ariels Gesang, Op 18 (1910) [8:36]
Serenade in E flat major, Op 20 (1910) [24:19]
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Gregor Bühl
rec. June 2020, Radio Kulturhaus, Vienna
CAPRICCIO C5429 [59:20]

Here’s the latest instalment in Capriccio’s ongoing Braunfels series; and very welcome it is too. This is conductor Gregor Bühl’s fourth contribution; Bob Stevenson and I have admired the previous three discs (review ~ review ~ review).

The programme opens with the Prelude to Braunfels’ opera Don Gil von den Grünen Hosen (Don Gil of the Green Britches). Jens F Laurson points out in his useful booklet essay that the opera itself is hobbled by a poor plot and libretto. However, the Prelude, which I’ve heard before on a rival disc conducted by Johannes Wildner (review) is a strong piece. On that disc Wildner also offers the equally attractive orchestral suite which Braunfels extracted from the opera. Confusingly, that’s labelled as Op 35/2 by Dutton Epoch, who list the Prelude as Op 35/1: are they correct or have Capriccio got it right? What really matters, though, is the music and the performance. In my review of the Wildner recording I described the Prelude as “a bubbling piece” and Gregor Bühl’s reading supports that judgement. He and his orchestra don’t underplay the Straussian elements in the writing. It’s an appealing piece and I enjoyed hearing it again.

The Divertimento for radio orchestra was presumed lost until a set of handwritten parts turned up in the basement of the Vienna offices of Universal Edition a few years ago. One point of considerable interest is that Braunfels included parts for a pair of saxophones – for the only time in his output? Those instruments are used imaginatively to add to the palette of orchestral colours. Jens Laurson has this to say of the work: “With its mix of spa-orchestra lightness, Nero Wolf film-music legend, and even neo-baroque touches in the Serenade, it’s a little stunner”. That verdict just about nails it, I think. I was also interested to see, after I’d completed my listening, that my colleague Nick Barnard, reviewing an earlier recording, was no less taken with the Divertimento. There are five short movements which, individually and collectively, live up to the work’s title, diverting the listener. Like the best of light(er) music it’s very skilfully written. I liked the pleasing, singing lines in the central movement, marked Langsam; it’s a lyrical piece but some of the harmonies point to a seriousness of purpose. The concluding movement, Sehr lebhaft, is busy and extrovert. Throughout the work, the music and the way in which it is scored are full of interest. Bühl and his players turn in a delightful performance.

The other two works are roughly contemporaneous. The short Ariels Gesang was inspired by Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest. The forces required are modest: the notes state that strings, two horns, a trumpet and harp are involved, but there are definitely some woodwind instruments in the mix also. I’ve heard the piece before in the recording conducted by Johannes Wildner (review). I liked it very much then and I also like this account by Gregor Bühl. It’s worthy of note that the Bühl version is a bit swifter overall than Wildner, who takes 10:08. Braunfels’ textures are light and transparent and the piece as a whole is a delight. Bühl’s performance is excellent and seems to me to be completely in the spirit of the music.

The Serenade in E flat major also dates from 1920 and it’s surely no coincidence that both the Serenade and Ariels Gesang were written very soon after Braunfels’ marriage: both are very happy compositions. The Serenade is in four movements, which alternate slow-fast-slow-fast. The first movement is most engaging. The music has a nice, lyrical flow and winning melodic lines. Later on, there’s a Wagnerian hue both to the music and the scoring. After a short, brisk scherzo-like movement, we reach the third movement which is marked Ruhig. The marking doesn’t deceive: the music is almost entirely restful in character. There is a ceaseless flow of melody in this movement, which represents Braunfels at his most engaging. Via a big crescendo, Braunfels segues easily into the finale which is short, smiling and lively. Jens Laurson describes the Serenade as “utterly charming”. I completely agree, and all the more so when it’s presented as delightfully as is here the case.

All four of the works on this disc are entertaining in the truest sense of the word. The music is inventive and exhibits expert craftsmanship. I enjoyed both the works and performances very much indeed. The recorded sound is very good and in the notes Jens F Laurson once again acts as a persuasive advocate for this composer’s music.

John Quinn

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