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.
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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.
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
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.
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)