FREITAS BRANCO: Symphony No. 2 (1926-27). After a Reading of Guerra Junqueiro (1909). Artificial Paradises (1910).
RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra/Álvaro Cassuto.
Naxos 8.572059 (B) (DDD) TT: 67:49.

Musical paella. The music of Luís de Freitas Branco (1890-1955) ranks highly within his native Portugal, but has made very little dent outside it. He studied in Berlin with Engelbert Humperdinck, of Hansel and Gretel fame. However, he hankered after more progressive music and soon succumbed to the spells of Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy. Nevertheless, his music strikes me as historically important rather than artistically necessary. My main test for this is, of course, "Can I live without hearing this work again?" I answer, "Very well indeed."

In 1908, Freitas Branco heard Richard Strauss conduct both Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel in Lisbon. This resulted in Freitas Branco's After a Reading of Guerra Junqueiro. The work he refers to is Junqueiro's Death of Don Juan. Freitas Branco's score teems with steals from both Strauss scores, mainly in the orchestration and in the overall shape, which follows Don Juan. By the way, the Portuguese consider this period Freitas Branco's most important. However, you only have to put this beside either Strauss score to recognize the difference between talent and genius.

Literature inspires most of Freitas Branco's orchestral output. Baudelaire's translation of De Quincy's Confessions of an Opium Eater sparked Artificial Paradises, apparently considered Freitas Branco's masterpiece. This score certainly improves upon the Junqueiro tone poem. Strauss still hangs about, but so do Tchaikovsky and Ravel. The composer takes a risk -- fourteen minutes of slow -- but the piece has just enough interest to sustain its length. Just don't expect Daphnis et Chloë or La Mer. Unlike Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain, for instance, which builds something unique on an Impressionist base, other than a certain amount of taste, you sense very little personality in this music.

The second symphony appeared in 1926 -- that is to say, a bit after Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Hindemith, and Bartók had begun to carve out Modern paths. Although not a practicing Catholic, Freitas Branco wrote it on the occasion of his sister's entry into a Carmelite convent. Part of the plainchant "Tantum ergo" provides one of the stronger thematic strands in the score.

Freitas Branco seems not to have noticed or felt much artistic sympathy with the new music, since of all the influences on him -- Debussy, Ravel, Strauss, even the "archaic," modal Respighi -- the strongest presence in this symphony is César Franck's ghost. The symphony opens with the chant. However, when we finally get to the main allegro, the years suddenly vanish and we find ourselves in the middle of "stress" music that would fit very well into Franck's 1888 d-minor symphony. Franck did influence some moderns, but in a structural way. However, his actual idiom faded from fashion by the early 1900s. Some very early pieces by Vaughan Williams, for example, derive from Franck. Significantly, VW never pursued publication or further performances. At any rate, eventually even Freitas Branco's chant theme (actually, a variant) gets bathed in Franckian harmony. Indeed, most of the movement runs in this vein. It feels as if the modern touches merely decorate rather than contribute to the substance. Some writers have seen this movement as a conflict between faith and doubt. To me, however, the movement depicts a struggle between the new era with the old, and the old wins out.

The second-movement andantino derives from the slow movement to the Franck symphony, with here and there a touch of Bruckner. Nevertheless, the composer writes one of the more convincing movements of the symphony.

The scherzo's main theme comes from the Tantum ergo chant, with the initial interval changed from whole to half step -- a simple change that gives the theme a new uneasiness. The new tempo makes the chant a grotesquerie. Traditionally, the scherzo has allowed composers to take chances and to extend themselves. You can find a lot of radical music in scherzi. Some writers have tried to argue this for Freitas Branco but, I think, unsuccessfully. To me, it sounds less radical than Saint-Saëns's Danse macabre.

You can just about predict the course of the finale, another sonata-allegro. Here, the composer turns the chant upside-down for his main theme, but you know the chant will make a glorious return in the final measures. One can find neat technical touches, here and there, but overall the movement -- and, come to think of it, the entire symphony -- is really second-hand news, although for the most part well-told, unlike something like Elgar's 1919 Cello Concerto which tells you something new in an older language. After all, Petrushka was over a decade old by this point. Strauss's Don Quixote was even older. None of the innovations of these scores show up here. Do they have to? Not really, but Freitas Branco has nothing other than craft and a minor lyrical gift to put in their place. He has produced an example of that most frustrating genre, the Nice Piece.

On the other hand, Cassuto and his band play the bejabbers out of these scores. They give the symphony in particular a finer run than Amigo and the Orchestre symphonique d'Extremadura on Atma Classique, who let the music droop and just go by for long stretches at a time. Cassuto conducts as if he believes Freitas Branco a major composer. Excitement and snap run through all these readings, even though the music remains irretrievably dated. However, if minor Romantic composers interest you, you might want to check this out.

S.G.S. (March 2010)