About this Recording
8.572624 - FREITAS BRANCO, L. de: Orchestral Works, Vol. 4 (Cassuto) - Symphony No. 4 / Vathek

Luís de Freitas Branco (1890–1955)
Symphony No. 4 • Vathek


Luís de Freitas Branco, the most important Portuguese musician of the first half of the twentieth century, was both a great composer and an important teacher. His creative output is symbolically represented on this recording by his last symphony and one of his early and most revolutionary works, the symphonic poem Vathek. His legacy will be represented in future recordings by the works of his most outstanding disciples.

Symphony No. 4, composed between 1944 and 1952, and scored for four flutes, two of them doubling piccolo, two oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, contrabass tuba, timpani, percussion and strings, represents the culmination of his symphonic vision of monumentality in music, a kind of neo-classic late Romantic stylistic approach, following the fourmovement tradition to which he had remained faithful since his Second Symphony, composed in the 1920s.

Dedicated to his disciple Joly Braga Santos, the Fourth Symphony is based, like the Second, on Gregorian chant. Used as a means to unify much of the thematic material which appears in the work, it also establishes, right from the start, a mood which prepares the listener for the chorale-like passages which constitute big climaxes in the first and last movements. Suffice it to say, there is no question that this work is the most creative, appealing, and accomplished of Freitas Branco’s four symphonies.

The first movement opens with a Kyrie played by the woodwind and punctuated by open fifths in the strings. The following Allegro, starting in the strings in the low register, builds up to a climax where the strings play the theme, punctuated by harsh and ominous chords from all the woodwind, brass and percussion. This movement follows the traditional ABA form, in which A has three clearly identifiable sections. B (the development section) starts with a four horn call in unison, answered by all strings in triplets, and after a climax of highly dissonant syncopated chords from the whole orchestra, the second A section (the recapitulation), reappears in the low strings. This very basic analysis does not, however, do justice at all to the high quality of the music, its contrasts, its rich orchestration and, above all, the vitality and interior conviction which pervade this movement and the remaining three.

The second movement is based on a kind of moto perpetuo which starts in the lower strings in 2/4 rhythm against the 3/4 metre of each bar. The main theme is an innocuous, unpretentious, and innocent phrase played by a solo bassoon, which, after a variety of adventures in different musical regions, constitutes the climax of the movement. This is succeeded by an ascending sequence of chords, supported by steady, softly repeated quarter notes played on the timpani, starting in the low register and building up to a majestic conclusion.

The third movement is the shortest of all four, and also the most concise. It starts with an outburst of sound, one bar followed by a sustained chord, which reappears at the end, although without the sustained chord. It is actually an excerpt of the main climax of the A part of this ABA Scherzo.

After this outburst the music starts in a faster tempo, quietly, almost a reminiscence of the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. The main part of the Scherzo leads directly into the B section, the Trio, a typical fandango rhythm and melody of the countryside where the composer owned an estate and composed the two folk-inspired Alentejo Suites more than twenty years earlier. The Scherzo is then repeated, ending as abruptly as it started.

The Finale has a short majestic introduction based on a 5/4 thematic fragment which had already appeared in the Scherzo. The music proceeds at a steady slow march tempo, leading directly into the Allegro, an idyllic melodic line where the cellos are in dialogue with the flute, under and over a tremolo in the higher strings. Again, as in the first movement, there is an enormous wealth of different sections, especially some in which the melody (or what could be called a melody) is placed in the cellos and basses, doubled by the lower woodwind and brass, punctuated by accompanying chords from the rest of the orchestra in the high register. Before the recapitulation, the slow introduction reappears and the movement ends with majestic chorale-like sections in the woodwind and brass, and also in the full orchestra. When the work ends, it leaves us with a distinct need to hear it again, to try to understand the musical journey in which we have been carried along, since the, by now, distant, and almost forgotten, opening Kyrie.

Vathek, the full subtitle of which is Symphonic Poem in the form of variations on an Oriental theme, is a most important, revolutionary work which, although composed in 1913, was not performed until 1950, and even then without its Third Variation, which was played for the first time in my first concert in Lisbon, in 1961.

Those who are familiar with the kind of music which was produced in Portugal during the first decades of the twentieth century, can well understand that a work such as Vathek would have met with utter repulsion. And why, after all? Because of the polytonal introductory brass fanfare? Because of the twelve-tone chords (built of superimposed fourths in the strings) in the middle and at the end of the Prologue? These dissonances, never heard before, and never heard again until the avant-garde of the 1960s, are yet minor details compared with the Third Variation, which offered something unheard of in all European music in 1913, when it was written. It is a fugato in 59 “voices”, starting with eight solo cellos, followed by eight violas, sixteen second violins, sixteen first violins and, finally a variety of solo woodwind, leading to a slow, majestic, restatement of the main motif in the lower brass, interrupted by two bars of silence. This sudden silence is followed by an outburst of “laughter” from the whole orchestra, as if the composer expressed his “amusement” about the utter disbelief of the audience.

Vathek is scored for four flutes, two doubling piccolo, two oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, double bassoon, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, five percussion, two harps, two celestas and strings, and is based on the novel, written in French by William Beckford (1760–1844), “the wealthiest son of England”, according to Lord Byron. It became more widely known through a new edition with a preface by Mallarmé published in 1876. The following is based on the synopsis which Freitas Branco wrote at the beginning of his manuscript score:

“Vathek, a Caliph whose magnificence exceeded that of all of his predecessors, dissatisfied by the Palace built by his father in the city of Samarah, added to it five other palaces, each one of which was destined to satisfy each of the human senses.

The first was dedicated to the sense of “taste”, and the tables were always covered by the most delicate kinds of food. The palace was called the “Eternal Feast”.

The second palace, the “Temple of the Melody”, was inhabited by the best musicians and poets of his time, who performed without ceasing.

The third palace, called “Delight of the Eyes” was dedicated to the most rare paintings and statues, collected from all over the World.

The fourth palace, or “Palace of the Perfumes”, was filled with aromatic lamps which were lit all day, even during sunlight.

The fifth palace, or “Refuge of Happiness”, was filled with maidens, beautiful and kind, who never faltered in providing wellbeing for the Caliph’s guests”.

There is a festive introduction, followed by the Theme (bassoon solo), representing the Caliph. The Prologue precedes the five Variations, each one of which represents one of the five palaces, and the Epilogue is the composer’s final musical comment.

Álvaro Cassuto

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