FERNANDES: Violin Concerto in E (1948). FREITAS BRANCO: Symphony No.
2 in b-flat minor (1926).
Alexandre da Costa (violin), Orchestre symphonique d'Extremadura/Jesús
ATMA Classique ACD2 2578 (F) (DDD) TT: 73:42.
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Between the Renaissance composers Cardoso and Lobo and the Modernist
Braga Santos, I've heard very little classical music from Portugal. As
far as I can tell, the ferment that seized Spanish music in the nineteenth
century largely passed Portugal by. Spanish composers studied in France,
Germany, and Italy and became intensely Spanish. Portuguese composers
studied in the same conservatories and became French, German, and Italian
knockoffs. The action in the twentieth century seemed largely to transfer
Armando José Fernandes took advanced study with Dukas, Boulanger,
and Stravinsky, among others. Oddly enough, his violin concerto reminds
me most strongly of Khachaturian's (1940). The first movement obsesses
on an initial figure which generates all the other themes. Unfortunately,
it's one of those pieces that steals from everybody and winds up sounding
like nobody. There's a bit of Brazilian rhythm, à la Villa-Lobos,
some Creston-like harmonies, and some standard neoclassic turns of phrase,
but I wonder where the composer is in all this. Despite the notes and
the insistent rhythms, not all that much happens in this concerto. The
various sections sound so much alike, due to the similarity of the thematic
shapes, that it all seems to dissolve into a long drone. Interest picks
up in the lively second-movement scherzo, which hops like a flea on a
hot brick, although the transition to the trio -- essentially, a full
stop and a start -- seems clumsy to me. I like the slow movement the
best, a straightforward song whose main strain might relate to the generating
idea of the first movement. Here, however, Fernandes contents himself
with singing rather than with showing off his compositional smarts, and
all for the better. Nevertheless, it results in something fundamentally
pleasant, rather than heartbreakingly beautiful. The last movement, a
rondo, totally misfires. It lacks the brio and fire of a concerto of
that type. We return to the drone -- a lot of notes and no significant
activity. A concerto, of course, needn't end with a pyrotechnical display,
but the Fernandes ends on nothing momentous or even on anything which
gives a feeling of rounding things off or of summing up.
Born into a prominent musical family (his brother Pedro conducted the
premiere of the Fernandes violin concerto -- small world), Luís
de Freitas Branco (1890-1955) studied in Berlin with Hansel und Gretel's
Humperdinck. However, an encounter with Debussy sent him in a more progressive
The second symphony comes from 1926. The composer wrote it on the occasion
of his sister's entry into a Carmelite convent. Part of the plainchant "Tantum
ergo" runs through the score.
Yet, with all of the wide-flung influences on Freitas Branco, the strong
presence of César Franck surprised the hell out of me. The symphony
opens with the chant, harmonized with Respighian archaism. We get to
the main allegro, and suddenly it's 1888, with an agitated theme that
would have fit nicely into Franck's d-minor symphony. A lyrical theme,
related to the chant, is harmonized in a pure, Franckian chromaticism,
and the composer recalls the chant theme at several points in the movement.
The liner notes suggest a faith-vs.-doubt scenario, but to me the movement
exemplifies a conflict between two adjacent musical eras.
The second-movement andantino comes straight out of the slow movement
to the Franck symphony, but the composer writes well, if not with originality
A scherzo follows. The main theme comes from the Tantum ergo chant, with
the initial interval changed from whole to half step. This simple change
gives the theme a new menace. The underlying bass rhythm comes directly
from that of the second movement. Freitas Branco simply speeds it up.
The liner notes try to make a case for the Modernism of this movement,
but to me it sounds like a minor, though craftsmanlike follower of Liszt,
with that same four-square clunkiness that sometimes afflicts even the
master. Freitas Branco is aware of this problem, because he occasionally
tries to break things up and obscure the main rhythmic pulse, just not
The finale, another sonata-allegro movement, kicks things off with an
agitated theme derived from turning the chant upside-down. There's a
lyrical theme as well, also fashioned from the upside-down chant. In
addition, the chant itself makes its appearance in sections of chorale.
The development is framed by two full orchestral unisons -- the first
on D, the latter on A-flat. I don't doubt that Freitas Branco put these
in as feats of daring, but they don't in practice come off as bold or
outrageous. After all, The Rite of Spring was over a decade old by this
point. Again, this is a Nice Symphony, rather than an astonishing one.
The performers are okay. Violinist da Costa, a Canadian, has a small
tone, although a true one. The orchestra plays with slight rhythmic problems,
but it's awfully unfair to judge anybody on the basis of these works.
Let's just say that nobody confounds your expectations.
S.G.S. (April 2008)