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ClassicsOnline Home » FREITAS BRANCO, L. de: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2 (Cassuto) - Symphony No. 2 / After a Reading of Guerra Junqueiro / Artificial Paradises
Luís de Freitas Branco was the towering figure in Portugese music during the first half of the 20th Century. His Second Symphony combines elements as disparate as Gregorian chant, the boisterous spirit of a Brucknerian scherzo and the influence of Franck and Debussy into a superbly integrated Romantic work. His tone poem After a reading of Guerra Junqueiro was inspired by Richard Strauss, whose opulent orchestrations it echoes. Artificial Paradises , an eerie piece inspired by De Quincy’s Confessions of an Opium Eater , is regarded as Freitas Branco’s masterpiece.
By Robert R. Reilly
By David Denton
This is the second disc in a series of orchestral works by Luis de Freitas Branco, one of the most important Portugese composers working in the first half of the 20th century. His wealthy Lisbon family provided a musical education in Berlin and Paris, though it was the French metropolis that made the lasting influence. He rapidly developed a style of orchestration that was his own, the opening flourish lifting the curtain on the Second Symphony full of unexpected twists and turns. Gregorian chant forms the basic material for the first movement, from which he creates music of considerable drama. A long flowing cello melody introduces the lyric beauty of the second, before a jagged and bounding scherzo comes almost as a parody of Bruckner. With brass intoning the Gregorian chant, the many moods of the finale are brought to a close. Composed when he was twenty, Artificial Paradises, has often been described as his masterpiece, but in reality is a fusion of musical styles of so many composers, Debussy being the most obvious, its quiet, smooth and luxurious orchestration creating a score of sensuality. Completing the release is a strange work, After a reading of Guerra Janqueiro, composed the previous year, with scoring following in the footsteps of the extrovert late-Romantics, the concluding section the composer describing as ‘a huge orchestral scream’. The highly regarded Portuguese conductor, Alvaro Cassuto, always extracts playing far above an orchestra’s norm, and here he finds total so many subtle colours from Ireland’s RTE National Symphony Orchestra. The sound is from the top drawer of the premiere league, and I strongly commend the disc to you. [Vol 1 on Naxos 8.570765]
Luís de Freitas Branco (1890–1955)
Symphony No. 2 • After a reading of Guerra Junqueiro • Artificial Paradises
Luís de Freitas Branco was born in Lisbon in 1890 where he lived most of the time until his death in 1955. He was the dominant figure in Portuguese music in the first half of the twentieth century, and his four symphonies constitute the essence as well as the culmination of his musical development.
Born into an aristocratic family, with ties to the royal family over many centuries, Luís de Freitas Branco enjoyed a highly sophisticated education, which included studies both in Berlin and then in Paris, where he worked with composers such as Engelbert Humperdinck and Désiré Pâque. He started composing at a very early stage, and his early works reflect the influence of various musical styles which he tried out, until settling for what can be called a neo-classical-romantic style in his four symphonies. An extensive account of the musical environment he found in Lisbon at the beginning of the twentieth century as well as of the composer’s career can be found in my notes to the preceding CD of this series. I therefore prefer to limit myself here to recalling the fact that he was active also as a leading force in the restructuring of musical education at the Lisbon Conservatory of Music, and played a significant rôle as a musicologist.
While the Scherzo Phantastique, composed in 1907 when the composer was seventeen and included in the preceding CD (Naxos 8.570765), reflects the influence of French late-nineteenth-century ballet music, the two tone poems included in this second CD show him experimenting with different styles. Indeed, the tone poem Depois de uma leitura de Guerra Junqueiro (After a reading of Guerra Junqueiro) (1909) clearly reflects the influence of Richard Strauss, while Paraísos Artificiais (Artificial Paradises) (1910) shows the strong influence of the French impressionists. The poem which inspired Freitas Branco was The Death of Don Juan and was written in 1874. Coincidentally, Richard Strauss himself conducted in Lisbon, in 1908, both his Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel. It is therefore not surprising that the nineteen-year-old composer, having certainly attended the concert in which Strauss conducted his two early works, and after reading the poem by Guerra Junqueiro, was tempted to experiment with what we could, today, call thematic and harmonic “collages” of “quotations” from both of Strauss’s two symphonic poems.
The present recording starts with Freitas Branco’s Symphony No. 2, written in 1926–27, a work in which his musicality and inventiveness is handsomely matched by his intellectual coherence. In fact the symphony’s thematic material is based on a two-note thematic cell. It can be heard at the very beginning of the symphony after the two initial fortissimo chords. The chorale-like melody starts with two notes, G - A - A - G. The second theme of the first movement starts with a similar sequence of two notes, just as the second part of the main theme of the second movement, in the cellos, the main theme of the Scherzo and most of the themes of the finale. Going one step further, we find that this two-note cell is the beginning of a Gregorian chant, which is presented in the slow introduction of the first movement, and which serves as the majestic ending of the fourth movement. The use of Gregorian chant is the consequence of the fact that Freitas Branco’s older sister, to whom the work is dedicated, had become a nun in a Carmelite monastery in Spain. This event left a strong mark on Freitas Branco, who by nature and belief, did not follow the principles of the Catholic faith in which he had been brought up. This said, the symphony follows the traditional four-movement scheme. A slow introduction, with the Gregorian chant in the woodwind, precedes the main Allegro, in which the exposition of its two main themes is followed by a variation of the slow introduction. The re-exposition follows this slow interlude, which reappears at the end of the first movement.
The slow movement is much less complex than the first or the last, and it is quite easy to grasp. The theme in the cellos is followed by a second section in the woodwind; this leads to a middle section in 9/8 rhythm rather than the main 3/4 metre which, after building to a climax, leads to the re-exposition closing the movement pianissimo.
The Scherzo is boisterous, and, quite interestingly, cannot help but remind us, here and there, of the scherzi so typical of Bruckner. The opening theme in the low cellos and basses is based on the two-note scheme, and the endings of both exposition and re-exposition are preceded by huge crescendi equally based on the two-note cell, long and sustained, rather than short and incisive as in the beginning. The Trio is quite pastoral in atmosphere, and offers a touch of relaxation from the hard-driven Scherzo.
The finale starts with a slow introduction and the main Allegro has the usual two themes. In the middle, development section, we hear the Gregorian theme as a solo of four horns, while the recapitulation leads us to a return to the slow introduction of this movement. Quite naturally, and as can be expected in a work by a composer as structurally minded as Freitas Branco, the movement ends with a majestic return of the Gregorian chant.
One notable aspect is found in the extraordinary tempo relationships between the various sections of this work. Although Freitas Branco does not specify the tempi by metronome, the indication of a quarter-note (crotchet) equalling the preceding eighth-note (quaver), and similar indications, make it clear that not only was the melodic unity of concern to Freitas Branco, but also that the whole symphony is a highly successful example of rhythmic unity, resulting from the tempo which the conductor chooses for the presentation of the initial Gregorian chant.
The symphony is orchestrated for three flutes including piccolo, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings.
In After a reading of Guerra Junqueiro (1909) a huge “scream” of fortissimo woodwind trills, punctuated by trumpets, leads to explosive chords from the full orchestra, subsiding into a pianissimo low note of the tremolo double basses. In a kind of musical caricature, a solo contrabassoon introduces a melodic line which leads, with added woodwind, to an orchestral tutti clearly reminiscent of the main theme of Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel. In an ensuing new section four cellos develop the Till Eulenspiegel theme, leading to a più lento section with the full orchestra, pianissimo.
A unison violin melodic line in thirds, followed by a solo violin ending, leads to an oboe solo with pedal-point in the high register of the violins, leading again to a pianissimo full orchestra section.
Building up to a climax, there is a return to the initial, slightly faster, tempo. A solo clarinet, reminiscent again of the Eulenspiegel theme, leads to a full orchestra fortissimo, with woodwind and trombones, with the tuba, in ascending and descending chromatic scales, and the restatement of the oboe solo theme, now presented grandiosely by trumpets and horns in unison. After a brief pause, the A minor chord with the pianissimo full orchestra is clearly reminiscent of the ending of Strauss’s Don Juan, a reminder of the title of Guerra Junqueiro’s poem, The Death of Don Juan. Just as in Strauss’s tone poem, the work ends pianissimo, with low pizzicato notes supported by the low brass and timpani.
On the title page, the composer wrote “Fantasia”. Could this mean that quotations from the two Strauss Tone Poems were intentional?
The work is orchestrated for three flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba, contrabass tuba, two harps, timpani, percussion and strings.
Artificial Paradises (1910) is generally considered by Portuguese musicians and musicologists as Freitas Branco’s masterpiece, above all. Introducing modern music into Portugal for the first time, the work was inspired by the autobiographical essay by Thomas De Quincy (1785–1866) Confessions of an Opium Eater, partially translated into French by Baudelaire in 1860. Few explanations suffice to explain the structure of the work. The tempo is slow, from the beginning to the end. The initial bars played by the violins and pursued by the woodwind contain all musical elements on which the work is based, both in melodic and rhythmical features, as well as in terms of the harmonic exploitation of polytonality. This is achieved by the superimposition of different chords, as is clearly the case of the ending, where a C major chord in the high register is added to an A flat major chord in the lower.
After an eerie introduction, based on harmonic exploitation of chords enhanced by delicate crescendi in the strings, the solo oboe introduces a melodic line which leads to a horn solo, accompanied by triplets in the strings, based on the melodic cell of the first two bars. The music builds up to a climax followed by a new section, introduced by a tremolo in the first violins with rhythmic punctuations by the second violins, pizzicato, doubled by the glockenspiel. Waves of sound lead to the main climax that ends in a sustained low note in muted (bouché) horns. From there onwards all the strings are muted in a kind of recapitulation. The final chords of the work are followed by an “afterthought”: a muted trumpet, a few woodwind and an F minor chord with an added E flat (F - A flat - C - E flat).
The work is scored for three flutes including piccolo, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, two harps, timpani, percussion and strings.
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