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Phillip Scott
Fanfare, March 2009

The performance by the Irish orchestra is warm and smooth under Cassuto, although I believe this kind of music demands a degree of sharper detailing and more sheer energy to make it compelling. Still, a strong start to what promises to be an interesting journey of discovery. © 2009 Fanfare Read complete review

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, September 2008


This is the first CD in a new series from Naxos devoted to the four symphonies of Luis de Freitas Branco (1890-1955), whose last name is sometimes given as just Branco. Born in Lisbon, where he spent most of his life, he could be considered the father of the Portuguese romantic symphony. Although he studied with Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) in Berlin as well as Désiré Pâque (1867-1939) in Paris, listening to the music here it would seem that French rather than German influences are the most predominant.

That's particularly true of his first symphony (1924), which like that of César Franck (1822-1890) is in three movements rather than the usual four favored by German romantic composers. While it opens darkly like the Franck, the mood soon changes with the introduction of a radiant pastoral-sounding theme. These contrasting melodic ideas are developed in tandem, and at one point [track-1, beginning at 09:49] there are repeated passages for the woodwinds that call to mind Vincent d'Indy's (1851-1931) Symphony on a French Mountain Air (1886). Towards the end of the first movement it appears that the "Dark Side" will triumph, but hope prevails as the composer ends on a major chord. The next movement could be considered two in one because it's lovely pathos-filled outer sections surround a joyful scherzo-like inner one. While the opening melodic ideas of the finale owe a debt to the last movement of the Franck symphony, Freitas Branco proves he's his own man in the development of them. The specter of d'Indy is again present, but the brilliant concluding coda is all Branco.

This is the world première recording of Scherzo Fantastique (1907), which was written when the composer was only seventeen. It predates Stravinsky's identically named piece by a year, and shows that Freitas Branco must have been an "A" student when it came to orchestration. Very much in the spirit of the Queen Mab Scherzo, Berlioz would surely have approved.

The composer wrote two orchestral suites inspired by the folk music from the Alentejo region of Portugal, which is south of Lisbon. It's the first of these dating from 1917 that's presented here. In three sections, the opening one is rustically relaxed and contains some gorgeous tunes, which the album notes tell us are shepherd songs. They bear a resemblance to some of the more subdued ditties Joseph Canteloube (1879-1957) would include in his Songs of the Auvergne (1923-30). The second part is titled "Intermezzo," and sounds like it's based on some folk lullaby. At one point there are rhythmic accents consisting of dotted pairs of notes [track-6, beginning at 03:26] that will bring to mind the folk-inspired creations of Bartók (1881-1945).

The concluding movement is a Fandango that's apparently become a Portuguese pops favorite, and the most often played classical piece in that country. It consists of rhythmically lively outer dance episodes that surround a most attractive melodically pensive central one. The dance tune will sound familiar because it's indigenous to Spain as well as Portugal. Both Glinka and Rimsky-Korsakov knew and used it; the former in his Jota aragonesa (1845), and the latter in Capriccio espagnol (1887). Like his Russian counterparts, Freitas Branco turns it into a rousing flamenco number complete with castanets, ending this colorful suite in fiery Latin fashion.

Álvaro Cassuto is Portugal’s finest living conductor and an authority on the classical music of his country. Many will remember his magnificent recordings for Marco Polo (8.223879, 8.225087, 8.225216, 8.225186, 8.225233 and 8.225271) featuring the symphonic works of another Portuguese composer, Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988), who was a student of Freitas Branco. Obviously Cassuto hasn't lost his touch, because the performances here are just as accomplished. Granted the orchestra is not Portuguese as on some of his previous discs, but you'll find the playing of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland is equally good and totally committed.

The recordings are excellent from the soundstage perspective, however the highs on occasion shine forth a bit too brightly. In the long run though, this disc is still a most enjoyable listen.

David Hurwitz, August 2008

This first volume in a projected series of Freitas Branco orchestral works nicely outlines his three principal styles. First, in the symphony, there is the influence of Franck and his school. This is so pronounced, particularly in the finale, that the result risks caricature. There is no need to describe the music in any further detail: if you love Franck's Symphony in D minor, then you'll also enjoy this work. It's a very, very good copy, closer to its model in sound and structure than many of the works of Franck's immediate contemporaries (Chausson, for example, or Dukas). If you forget the fact that the symphony was composed in 1924, you certainly would think you are hearing a French piece from the 1890s.

The Scherzo fantasque also betrays a French influence, this time of the impressionists, or perhaps Dukas, in its piquant use of a smallish orchestra with plenty of colorful percussion. Suite Alentejana No. 1 reveals Freitas Branco as an ethnic nationalist, recalling Falla, particularly in the ebullient concluding Fandango. It's a lovely work--but then all of this music is certainly worth getting to know, especially when the performances are this sympathetic and well recorded. Álvaro Cassuto is of course familiar to collectors from his series of orchestral works by Joly Braga Santos (one that I hope is ongoing--there's still come good stuff there). He's not only an authority on the Portuguese school, but he projects his knowledge of the composers and their various idioms with unfailing enthusiasm and stylishness, making this latest release an easy recommendation.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, July 2008

During the first half of the 20th century Luis de Freitas Branco was the most famous Portuguese composer, so this projected four-disc series of his symphonic music is important in regaining his international standing. Born into a wealthy Lisbon family in 1890, he enjoyed a privileged musical education in Berlin and Paris. It was the French metropolis that was the major influence, the First Symphony from 1924 clearly indebted to César Franck, though Freitas Branco had already developedhis own style of orchestration. The opening movement has drama but no sign of the angst that had by that time become fashionable, the lyrical beauty of the second movement confirming the warmth of overall feeling, the finale mixing happiness with a slow and dignified central section. It also shows that Freitas Branco had ignored the avant garde who were causing musical mayhem at the time, his music remaining totally married to tonality. Composed when he was seventeen, the Scherzo Fantastique is a masterful essay in the art of musical filigree, its delicacy of scoring unusual for one so young. It here receives its world premiere recording. The disc concludes with the first Suite Alentejana, scores derived from the folklore of Alentajo, a region of Portugal just south of his birthplace. Light in mood and often very transparently scored, the three movements closing with a brilliant Fandango. It is a readily likeable work, often showing in its scoring the composer’s love of French Impressionist writing that he had experienced by his years in Paris. The great Portuguese conductor, Alvaro Cassuto, directs Ireland’s RTE National Symphony Orchestra in immaculately prepared performances that create the subtle colours needed.

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