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Freitas Branco violin KTC1750
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Luís de FREITAS BRANCO (1890-1955)
Violin Sonata No 1 for Violin and Piano [25:17]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Violin Sonata No 2 for Violin and Piano in G major [19:02]
Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959)
Violin Sonata No 2 for Violin and Piano Fantasia [24:33]
Bruno Monteiro (violin)
João Paulo Santos (piano)
rec. December 2021, ISEG Concert Hall, Lisbon, Portugal
ETCETERA KTC1750 [69:23]

Back in June 2016, I reviewed an attractive CD of Portuguese Piano Trios, featuring works by Costa, Carneyro, and Azevedo. Since then, I have had no further dealings with the popular holiday destination situated on the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula – well, save for the occasional glass of its world-famous fortified wine.

This new release on the Dutch/Belgian ETCETERA label of three Violin Sonatas, has now introduced me to another fellow-countryman, composer Luís de Freitas Branco, as well as the two Portuguese instrumentalists who perform on the CD. Violinist Bruno Monteiro has been heralded as one of his country’s premier violinists, and his extensive repertoire includes the vast majority of Violin Sonatas from the Baroque to the twentieth century. Frequently he is accompanied by pianist João Paulo Santos, and it is this partnership we hear on the present CD.

With all the artistic skill of a new-born, I rarely, if ever, comment on a CD’s artwork, except where text appears difficult to read because there’s insufficient contrast with the background colour. However, that is certainly not the case here, where the cover image, by German painter August Macke (1887-1914), really stands out from the crowd, with its predominance of eye-catching green. The only slight incongruity here, however, would seem to be that, while Macke was an Expressionist, the music on the CD leans decidedly more in the direction of Impressionism.

Monteiro has written the sleeve-notes himself, and they provide an interesting and informative insight into the composers recorded here, and their music. He begins by saying that he and Paulo Santos have performed the three Violin Sonatas on this CD many times in concert, and ranks all three very highly, despite the fact that the two by Branco and Villa-Lobos respectively, are still little known by music lovers generally. Although clearly having a vested interest in these two composers – the former Portugal-born, and the latter Brazilian – Monteiro expresses the hope that the ‘interpretations presented here will contribute to greater appreciation for these works’.

Luis de Freitas Branco was born in Lisbon into an aristocratic family who for centuries had had close ties to the Portuguese royal family. He had a cosmopolitan education, learning the piano and violin as a child, and began to compose at a precocious age. His studies took him to Berlin and Paris, where he worked with Engelbert Humperdinck among other composers. He later returned to Portugal and became professor of composition at the Lisbon Conservatory of Music in 1916, and where he became a leading force in restructuring musical education in the country. During the 1930s he increasingly encountered political difficulties with the authorities and was finally forced into retirement from his official duties in 1939. He continued to compose, however, and to pursue his research into Portuguese early music.

He composed his Sonata No 1 for Violin and Piano in 1908, when, at the age of seventeen, he was a student at the National Conservatory in Lisbon. Not only did it win first prize in a composition competition held in the city, but it also generated a fair degree of criticism since its content was considered almost revolutionary at the time, when compared with the more conservative-sounding works by his contemporaries. As Monteiro informs us, this reception was further exacerbated by comparisons made between Branco’s first sonata, and César Franck’s work for the same combination, which appeared some years earlier, in 1886. Franck’s sonata made significant use of cyclic form – where a theme or motif occurs in more than one movement as a unifying device, with, or without any kind of thematic metamorphosis. But again there was nothing sinister intended in sharing the same compositional technique, since Branco, at the time, was very close to Désiré Pâque, a Belgian composer, organist, and academic who lived in Lisbon for some years, and from whom Branco received lessons and advice.

The sonata is in four movements, and there is certainly more than a passing resemblance between its opening Andantino and the corresponding movement from Franck’s sonata. I did find that the violin seemed especially close-miked, though this hardly had any detrimental effect on the sound overall, and, of course, did physically amplify Monteiro’s take on the already-passionate nature of the writing. The ending is quite magical, as the movement comes to its hushed close on a D major chord from the piano supporting a delicately-sustained top A on the violin.

The second movement certainly lives up to its Allegretto giocoso marking, as it is so full of fun and good humour throughout. Monteiro and Santos’s invigorating reading definitely goes for the jugular, so to speak, and, even if there were slight blemishes along the way, it’s the spirited performance that carries everything along with it, rather like a fast-flowing river – a highly-enjoyable two-in-a-bar scherzo-equivalent in ternary form, that ends with real panache.

Harmonically-speaking, there is almost something ‘Tristanesque’ about the piano chords at the start of the Adagio molto, but this is short lived, and leads into a warmly-romantic melody heard first on the violin, over an arpeggio-type accompaniment from the piano, who later has its own quasi-Impressionistic moment to shine somewhat, before allowing the violin to conclude the movement in calm reflection. Again I feel that while the apparent close-miking of the violin has, of course, captured every nuance and subtlety in the playing, sometimes being too ‘up close and personal’ is not always the best vantage point. Indeed, I have since listened to other examples of Senhor Monteiro’s duo-recordings, where the playing has sounded somewhat balmier in the higher register. Nevertheless, it’s still a lovely movement, and the emotional heart of the sonata as a whole.

Bruno Monteiro describes the finale as ‘the most complex and varied in terms of thematic material’. Marked Allegro con fuoco there is more than sufficient ‘fire’ in the performance here, from its resolute, yet eminently restless opening. Branco makes greater demands on his players, as the writing is noticeably more virtuosic for both protagonists, but equally more impassioned, as he revisits themes from the preceding movements. He returns to the finale’s opening, from which he fashions a most impressive finish, virtually guaranteed to get the audience on their feet, straight after the final flourish.

The middle sonata on the CD – Ravel’s Sonata No 2 in G major – will, no doubt, be the best-known, even among non-violinists, and the composer’s biographical details are already well documented elsewhere. Suffice it to say, however, its gestation period was quite long, since it was first sketched in 1922, but only began to be put together the following year, until its completion in 1927. Its first performance was given by fellow-composer George Enescu on the violin, and Maurice Ravel at the piano.

As Monteiro says in the commentary, the first movement (Allegretto) does have quite a pastoral feel to it, especially the melismatic single-line from the piano with which it opens. Unlike the lush textures of the Branco, Ravel’s writing is much sparser, but this does allow the composer to compare and contrast the individual timbres of the two instruments to somewhat greater effect. Bizarrely, though, while Branco and Monteiro are fellow-countrymen, even if the former’s writing-style is not overtly Portuguese as such, for me Monteiro does come across more convincingly in the tessitura of the Ravel thus far.

The following movement – Blues (Moderato) – attempts to mimic the distinctive sounds of the banjo, and saxophone, and there is also a tad more dissonance in the writing, though this does succeed in spicing up this essentially ‘cake-walk’ type of movement. Needless to say, both players rise to the challenge here most effectively.

The finale – Perpetuum mobile (Allegro) – is the shortest movement, but a real tour de force which Monteiro and Santos clearly relish playing, and which is very much communicated in the performance. Both instruments share greater virtuosity here, and it’s conceived as a ‘duo’, not ‘duel’, it would still be fair to say that the violin does tend to emerge the overall ‘winner’.

Heitor Villa-Lobos started his musical training with his father, and quickly learned to play the guitar, cello, and clarinet. After his father’s death Villa-Lobos earned a living for himself and his family by playing in cinemas and theatres in Rio de Janeiro. Although he wanted to study medicine, his love for music and for education were unevenly matched, preferring to spend time with local street musicians, where he could familiarize himself with, and get to play as many different musical instruments as possible. Between the age of eighteen to twenty-five, he travelled around Brazil, and various African Caribbean nations, assimilating every indigenous musical styles he came across, all of which helped him to produce his first-ever composition, his Piano Trio No 1 in 1911.

After he returned to Rio in 1912, Villa-Lobos tried briefly to restart his erstwhile studies, but his love and passion for music soon changed his thoughts about resuming any kind of formal education. For the next ten years or so, he spent most of his time as a freelance cellist and composer, until he eventually gained international acceptance in 1919, when he composed his Third Symphony (A Guerra), which was mostly government-supported.

Between 1923 and 1930, Villa-Lobos found himself as the centre of attraction in the musical world of Paris, where, with generous funding and numerous commissions, he indulged his passion for composing, despite his failing health. Ultimately he returned to Brazil and in the 1930s totally involved himself in expanding public music education, travelling throughout the country, offering his services as a mentor/adviser. In 1944 he visited the United States to orchestrate many of his works, before returning to Rio the following year, where he co-founded the Brazilian Academy of Music, and where he remained until his death in 1959.

The CD concludes with Villa-Lobos’s Sonata No 2, also called Fantasia, the manuscript of which dates from September 1914. It is believed that the premiere actually took place later in November, and it was certainly played during the composer’s first Parisian sojourn in October, 1923, and where it was received with some indifference. The Courrier Musical et Théâtral described it at the time as ‘neither brilliant, nor bad’, which no doubt prompted the composer to make some alterations, and add material to the finale, the amended version eventually being published in 1933, along with the Third Sonata.

The work opens with an exciting, and energetic Allegro vivace scherzando, though you might well be forgiven for thinking that there’s something wrong with the disc, when all you can hear is the piano. In fact Villa-Lobos assigns the first theme to the piano alone, and the violin doesn’t make its appearance until just after a minute has elapsed. The syncopated rhythms and harmonic language at the opening very much confirm the composer’s Brazilian roots, and, according to Monteiro, the work is one of the most nationalistic in Villa-Lobos’s output. Lyricism is certainly not ignored, though, and combines with a good deal of virtuosity from both players, to make this one of the most engaging movements on the CD thus far, and nowhere more so than here in its major-key Coda.

The ensuing slow movement – Adagio non troppo, later Moderato – is the second longest track on the CD, and, as with Branco’s earlier example, again provides the emotional centrepiece of Villa-Lobos’s Sonata. As Monteiro puts it so aptly, it consists of an endless succession of melodies, save for a short, agitated episode in the middle section. He goes on to say that, without a doubt, it is very ‘French’ in its harmony and structure, which is a clear reference to its frequent nods in the direction of musical Impressionism, whose two leading figures – Debussy and Ravel – both hailed from La France. Here Monteiro is very much in his ‘sweet-spot’, where his warm, full-bodied tone at times almost suggests a cello-like richness, and where his use of portamento is particularly apposite.

The finale opens with a short, somewhat-rather-trite melody from the piano, but the violin soon takes it over, and, together both players work it up to a temporary climax before arriving at a calmer section towards the middle of the movement. Virtuosity and passion then return, as melodies are busily passed between the two instruments, in such abundance that the listener can scarcely keep up. Once the runway is in sight, so-to-speak, the music builds, with the help of the composer’s well-timed stretto, (acceleration), which culminates in a stunning finish, the approach to which both players have measured out with absolute precision, and definitely given their absolute all in the process.

Not including this new release from the Monteiro/Santos Duo, I counted only two CDs that offer the Branco Sonata. Somewhat predictably, Ravel’s Sonata fares considerably better, with more than thirty-five different recordings available, while recordings of the Villa-Lobos are some four times more plentiful than the Branco. Given that the other two versions of Branco’s Sonata No 2 are on CDs exclusively devoted to the composer’s chamber music, which is also the case with Villa-Lobos’s Sonata No2, this new release label could certainly provide a viable alternative for listeners specifically on the lookout either for the Branco or the Villa-Lobos, or perhaps even for both – and you’ll still get the Ravel as a bonus.

In summing up, the works on the CD seemed to divide conveniently into three. Based on the music itself – and I am a self-confessed Romantic – I have to say I enjoyed the Branco most of all. In terms of the actual performance per se, I’m more drawn to the Ravel. As for the Villa-Lobos, I strongly feel that this embraces the best of both worlds, so to speak - passionately-entertaining and original musical, lovingly presented in a powerfully-successful reading from both performers. Apart from my slight concern over miking, at the start of my review, the recording overall has captured the music’s attractiveness as well as the quality and verve of the playing, and is a good-looking product aesthetically.

Violinist Bruno Monteiro and pianist João Paulo Santos emerge as an empathetic and skilled ‘duo’ throughout – two artists, but more importantly, two good friends simply making music together – surely what chamber music should all be about.
Philip R Buttall

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