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Arthur S. Leonard
Leonard Link, May 2010

[Freitas Branco’s] music is tonal, dramatic, beautifully orchestrated, and worth getting to know. © 2012 Leonard Link Read complete review

Phillip Scott
Fanfare, September 2009

Naxos’s series of the orchestral works of Luís de Freitas Branco continues with this, the second release. Branco was the prime musical force in Portugal in the early to mid 20th century: a composer, teacher, administrator, and like his brother Pedro, a conductor. It is for his orchestral output, including a violin concerto and four symphonies, that he is best remembered.

Young Luís’s musical abilities were paraded in style in the orchestral fantasy, After a Reading of Guerra Junqueiro, written in 1909 at the age of 19. Richard Strauss had recently conducted a concert of his own music in Lisbon, and the excitement spurred the young composer to write a showpiece in a similar vein to Strauss’s Till and Don Juan.

A few years later, having studied briefly in Paris, Branco caused something of a furor back home with two new symphonic poems, one of which was Artificial Paradises (1913). This was the “modern” language of French impressionism—Debussy’s ballet score Jeux had made its first appearance the previous year—yet to my ears the sound is closer to Dukas: some chromatic passages are reminiscent of La peri, which also premiered in 1912. This French influence produced quite ravishing textures; the harp is prominent and there are plenty of swirling woodwinds. Nevertheless, conservative Lisbon audiences were thoroughly scandalized. (A lot of that sort of thing was going on in the musical world at the time. Why should Lisbon miss out?)

When he began to write symphonies, Branco had withdrawn somewhat from his modernist stance and had begun to incorporate traditional Portuguese music into his compositions—a deliberate rather than reactionary choice, as he wished to create an indigenous style. His First Symphony, heard on the previous issue [8.570765], suffers from the all-too-obvious influence of César Franck, and its structure fails to hang together convincingly in spite of many felicitous moments. The more mature Second (1926–27) has no such problems. Its first and final movements are built on a Gregorian chant. (According to the conductor’s note, this was in honor of the composer’s sister, who became a Carmelite nun.) The chant theme is harmonized at the outset by the winds and reappears in full at the very climax of the work some 40 minutes later in a grand statement from the brass. A motif taken from the chant is used frequently throughout the work, serving to knit the structure together. Probably the most impressive movement is the second, Andantino con moto, a stately dance in three with the main minor-key melody first presented on cellos over a sparse accompaniment.

Cassuto, an expert in his native repertoire, conducts fine and nuanced readings of these works, while the Irish musicians are recorded cleanly…A top recommendation.

James Manheim, September 2009

Naxos’ intriguing series of releases devoted to Portuguese music has already devoted one disc to the music of Luís de Freitas Branco, the most prominent Portuguese composer of the first half of the twentieth century [8.570765]. This release features the composer’s Symphony No. 2, written in 1926 and 1927 and including a dash of many of the styles that were in the air at the time in the Romance-language sphere. Annotator Álvaro Cassuto throws up his hands and proclaims the style of Freitas Branco’s four symphonies “neo-classical-romantic,” but he really should have added some reference to Impressionism. The Andantino con moto second movement offers straightforward antique-flavored melodies that you might guess were products of Respighi, but such moments of simplicity are balanced, or contradicted, by an intricate cyclical motivic scheme linking the work’s four movements. The symphony is an ambitious work, but possibly of the most interest to general listeners are the two 10-minute tone poems that round out the program. Composed in 1909 and 1910, respectively, these pieces reveal an original talent. The jocular After a Reading of Guerra Junqueiro is strongly influenced by Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel but contains its high spirits within a smaller palette; it’s a fine and virtually unknown comic work of the twentieth century. The best is saved for last with the fascinating Artificial Paradises, which Cassuto terms Impressionistic but which has a mysterious quality all its own. Slow in tempo throughout, the work also relies on melodic cells. It makes use of chord clusters that hint at bitonality and features a large orchestra broken up into shifting small groups. The title comes from Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater, as translated into French by Baudelaire and then retranslated into English. It’s a real trip, as far afield as any other work of its time. The RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland shows impressive sympathy with the music, and the sound environment of the National Concert Hall in Dublin is ideal.

Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International, June 2009

The conductor Álvaro Cassuto has spent many years promoting and recording Portuguese music and he writes the fascinating and helpfully analytical booklet notes. He comments that Freitas Branco’s “early works reflect the influence of various musical styles which he tried out until settling for what he called a neo-classical romantic style”. By “early” I suspect he means about 1910 when the composer was 20 and had not long finished his studies with, of all people, Engelbert Humperdinck. ‘Artificial Paradises’ is of that date and “is generally considered…as Freitas Branco’s masterpiece”. What a pity that the composer did not really exploit this language further. Based on Thomas de Quincey’s autobiographical essay ‘Confessions of an Opium Eater’ this is an impressionist tone-painting which must have seemed very modern at the time. It is a work of polytonality with a lack of clear, conventional form. Its melodies often lead nowhere, is evocative of the mist in a Monet painting and has definite touches of Debussy. It is most sensitively played and a terrific highlight, having heard it, I immediately wanted to hear it again.

‘After a reading of Guerra Junqueiro’ [was] written the previous year when he was 19. What an astonishing work it is for a teenager. It is quite individual and wonderfully and colourfully orchestrated. Although the booklet notes say nothing about him, Junqueiro, who died in 1923, was a lawyer, journalist, author and poet. What is odd about the piece and what I really cannot work out is why there are several almost-quotations from Strauss’ ‘Till Eulenspiegel’ and ‘Don Juan’. There is nothing in any of these works by Branco that is in any way ‘Iberian’. The Portuguese have often said how distinctive they are and want to be. Freitas Branco trained not in Madrid but in Berlin and Paris; and Strauss and Debussy at this time were all the rage hence their strong influence on the young composer. Theirs was an influence which by the time of his 2nd Symphony he wanted to throw off in the hope that he might discover himself. Unfortunately, for me, I prefer him as a young man attuned to new developments rather than to how he became once he had settled in his homeland after the Great War.

So with these reservations then, this disc becomes an interesting buy, extremely well played by the Irish Orchestra. If the experts are right and ‘Artificial Paradises’ is Luis de Freitas Branco’s finest work then don’t await the remaining discs because this is the one to go for.

Robert R. Reilly, May 2009

Branco’s Second [Symphony] reveals a marvelous imagination working in Portugal around 1926. Branco starts with Gregorian chant and builds an imposing edifice larded with gorgeous melodies. The two tone poems accompanying the Symphony are knockouts. Please, Naxos, record his Third and Fourth Symphonies.

Raymond Tuttle
Classical Net, May 2009

This, the second release in Naxos’ series devoted to the orchestral works of Freitas Branco (1890–1955), is one terrific CD. It might sound overly simplistic to say so, but Spanish composers often write music that sounds Spanish. On the other hand, there’s little about the music of Portuguese composer Luís de Freitas Branco that suggests the Iberian peninsula. (The same is true for Joly Braga Santos, a pupil of Freitas Branco, and a distinguished and even more interesting composer in his own right.) The music on this CD is European, but not identifiably Iberian.

Only two years separate Freitas Branco’s first two symphonies (1924 and 1926, respectively), but it seems that the composer grew by leaps and bounds during that period. The Franckian First Symphony (Naxos 8.570765) is thematically distinguished, although the development sometimes feels workmanlike. The Second Symphony, on the other hand, is consistently inspired. The influence of Franck can be heard here as well, not least in Freitas Branco’s use of a Gregorian chant as thematic material throughout. The slow movement contains what might be an echo of Bruckner’s Third Symphony, and the scherzo-like third movement, with its subtly diabolical mood, also suggests Bruckner. The finale is an emotionally and musically satisfying summation of what has come before, and ends with a triumphant presentation of the Gregorian theme first heard 40 minutes earlier.

Guerra Junquiero was Portuguese author. His poem The Death of Don Juan was one of the inspirations behind the second orchestral work included on this CD. The other inspiration was composer Richard Strauss, who conducted his own Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel in Lisbon in 1908. The teenaged Freitas Branco was in the audience, and must have been powerfully impressed by what he heard, because After a reading of Guerra Junquiero (1909) contains near-quotations from both of those tone poems. In other words, to call this work “Straussian” would be an understatement!

There is a literary inspiration behind Artificial Paradises as well, and that is Thomas De Quincey’s memoir Confessions of an English Opium Eater. This is another youthful work (1910), but a very assured one. Over the course of 14 minutes, Freitas Branco creates an atmosphere that is both luscious and sickly, somewhat like Debussy’s Le martyre de Saint Sebastien. Indeed, it is not Franck who is suggested here, but the French impressionists. The tempo is slow throughout, and interest comes from the languorous melodies and from the ever-varied orchestral textures. Hallucinogens are dangerous and illegal, and Freitas Branco’s Artificial Paradises arguably gives us a chance to enjoy them with no unwanted consequences!

The Second Symphony was recorded just a couple of years ago by the Extremadura Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jesús Amigo (Atma Classique ACD2-2578). This new recording surpasses it handily. When it comes to Braga Santos and Freitas Branco, Cassuto now is the conductor of choice, thanks to a handful of recordings on the Marco Polo and Naxos labels. The Irish orchestra is very capable, although one would like to hear music like this played by an orchestra with a richer sound. The conductor’s booklet notes display the insight of an insider.

Roger Hecht
American Record Guide, May 2009

Luis de Freitas Branco (1890–1955) was born in Lisbon to an aristocratic family. In Portugal he studied with Augusto Machado, Tomas Borba, as well as foreigners Desire Paque and Luigi Mancinelli. Later he worked with Humperdinck in Berlin and Gabriel Grovlez in Paris. In addition to his activities as a composer, Branco was the deputy director of the Lisbon Conservatory of Music, where he earned a reputation as a reformer. As a musicologist, he specialized in 17th Century Portuguese music and discovered the first Spanish opera, Celos a un del Ayre Matan.

The early influences on him were the late French romantics and impressionists as well as Franck and Strauss. In fact, he was responsible for introducing their music and Schoenberg’s to Portuguese audiences. After a Reading of Guerra Junqueiro (Fantasy) (1909) was inspired by Junqueiro’s poem, Death of Don Juan. Conductor Alvaro Cassuto suggests that the musical influence is Strauss’s Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel. To that I add Death and Transfiguration and a touch of Wagner’s Ring, all with a French accent. The work’s opening trills and flourishes suggest a movie about flight, but things quickly settle into a lighter, sweeter, and airier vein. A solemn climax builds majestically only to tumble in the strings into what seems like a different world set deeper into the orchestra with the clarinet muttering a bit of Till. Another climax follows in the brass, this one more festive than triumphant, like the one from ‘Corpus en Sevilla’ from Albeniz’s Iberia. The music retains that Spanish character before figments of the Till idea end the piece in a mocking vein. Artificial Paradises (1910) was inspired by Thomas De Quincy’s Confessions of an Opium Eater. It introduced modern works to Portugal and is probably Branco’s most famous work. The music is slow and dreamy as it explores low woodwind colors and interesting harmonies, and placing different chords over each other at the end. Anyone could mistake it for a work by Debussy (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and maybe Martyrdom of St Sebastian and Pelléas et Mélisande). There is also some Chausson and Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration. The work somewhat belies its title, for I cannot escape the image of a quiet grotto on a rich summer day with slow-moving clouds overhead.

A turn to neoclassicism marked Branco’s maturity from age 36, most notably in his four symphonies. That he wrote any symphonies at all was brave, because at the time there was no tradition of a Portuguese symphony and no orchestra in Portugal that played symphonic works. Opera was the music of the day.

Branco’s gift for flowing melody did not desert him in the Second Symphony (1927). The work is based on a two-note cell that makes up the opening, slow and solemn Gregorian Chant-like melody. Simple as it is, the chant casts a near religious glow over the piece. (The chant motif may refer to the composer’s sister, who had just become a nun. He was not religious.) The chant gives way to a Schumannesque Allegro that alternates with slower interludes. One is a mysterious variation on the opening chant, including an eerie pipe-organ effect created by the strings. The other is more insistent and thrusting, but every bit as mysterious.

The Andantino con Moto opens with the cellos singing the chant theme and passing it to the oboe. When the violins enter, the mood is similar to one of Rozsa’s quiet religious moments. The middle section is more contemplative, first in the oboe, then in the dark slow strings that brood as if buried in a catacomb. The climax is more broad than loud, with the chant melody in the strings against warm brass chords.

The Allegro Vivace is a rather odd movement. Conductor Cassuto’s fine notes draw parallels between it and Bruckner’s scherzos. In the “A” sections, there is a bit of the Ninth Symphony in terms of its rustic style, but I hear more of Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Saint-Saens’s Danse Macabre, plus the chant theme presented in parallel harmonies. The ending of the second one is a little stormy. The very different trios are pastoral, yet a bit urgent because of a strong duple figure.

A mysterious Adagio opens the finale, gathers strength in the strings, and then unleashes an Allegro that resembles Charles Stanford, of all people. Bruckner does make an appearance here with a downward motif that recalls the Scherzo from his Sixth Symphony. At the end, the quiet opening of the symphony returns, as does the chant, first in a dramatic moment for the four horns and finally in the noble close.

The RTE Orchestra does a nice clean job, and the sound is very good. I am eager to hear more from Luis de Freitas Branco.

David Hurwitz, February 2009

Who was Luís de Freitas Branco? His Second Symphony combines Gregorian themes (Respighi) with richly lyrical chromaticism (Franck). After a reading of Guerra Junqueiro is pure Richard Strauss, Don Juan in particular, right down to the combination of solo violin, harp, and glockenspiel. Artificial Paradises is French, d’Indy trending toward Debussy and Ravel—there’s an episode with rippling winds straight out of Daphnis and Chloe, except that the Branco is actually the earlier work (1910), the product of a 20-year-old composer with tremendous gifts.

What makes all of this so fascinating isn’t that Branco is derivative, but that the music still rings so true. The Franck is good Franck, the Strauss just as glowing as the real deal. Branco doesn’t conceal his influences, he revels in them, and this gives his music an authenticity and focus that makes the issue of sheer originality basically irrelevant. As in previous issues in this series, Álvaro Cassuto is the ideal exponent of his countryman’s music, and the sound that Naxos gets in Dublin remains some of the finest on offer from this label. Excellent on all fronts!

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, February 2009


Having piqued our interest in this late romantic Portuguese composer with their first volume of his orchestral works (see the newsletter of 8 September 2008), Naxos now gives us more music by Luís de Freitas Branco (1890-1955), sometimes referred to as just Branco. Born in Lisbon, where he spent most of his life, he could be considered the father of the Portuguese romantic symphony (he wrote four). German and French influences are evident in his music, undoubtedly as a consequence of his studies with Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) in Berlin and Désiré Pâque (1867-1939) in Paris.

Freitas Branco's second symphony dates from 1926-27 and is in the standard four movements. The first begins with a Gregorian-like melody that gives way to a bouncy tune followed by a chromatic motif that could almost be out of César Franck's symphony. These ideas are cleverly developed and restated with the movement ending quietly and mysteriously. The andantino that follows conjures up images of a minstrel with guitar in hand serenading some beautiful senhora. There's something of Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice (1897) in the mischievous scherzo. The finale gets off to a slow hushed start, but then, as in the first movement, a couple of faster ideas are introduced. These are developed in Franckian fashion with the cyclic return of ideas from previous movements. The work ends with a triumphant restatement of the theme with which the symphony began.

The next piece is the orchestral fantasy After a Reading of Guerra Junqeiro (1909), where the reading in question is Portuguese poet Abílio Guerra Junqeiro's (1850-1923) poem The Death of Don Juan (1874). The composer’s German training surfaces here in this delightful symphonic poem, which seems to take Richard Strauss' Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (1894-95) and Don Juan (1888) as its models. Still, there’s a Latin vivacity about it that makes it a Freitas Branco creation.

The final selection, Artificial Paradises (1910), is the highpoint of this CD, and apparently considered by many to be the composer's masterpiece. Inspired by the autobiographical account Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) by British author Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859), it's a stunning late-romantic tone poem. The mysterious beginning languidly builds to an ecstatic climax that abruptly ends. Then a tenuous twinkling motif with hints of the Dies Irae is heard [track-6, beginning at 06:35], and French impressionistic sounding passages [track-6, beginning at 08:22] that anticipate Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe (1912). A crescendo, which may well represent a drug-induced high, ensues; but withdrawal quickly follows as the work quietly winks out. This brilliantly orchestrated fifteen-minute work ranks with the best late-romantic symphonic poems, and you'll be glad to make its acquaintance.

As in volume one, Portugal's finest living conductor Álvaro Cassuto leads the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland in magnificent performances of everything here. They certainly beat out what little competition there is for the symphony, as does the Naxos bill of fare.

Like the previous release, the recordings are excellent from the soundstage perspective; however, the highs are a tad bright on occasion. Notwithstanding that, you'll find this disc a most enjoyable listen.

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, January 2009

The Second Symphony is a big work deployed across four movements the first of which repeatedly hints at Franckian inspiration. There’s a touch or two of Brahms 4 as well. The second movement takes a rural flavour familiar if you know this composer’s Alentejo suites. There’s also some evidence that de Freitas Branco was rather taken with Dvořák 9. Romping countryside confidence redolent of Bruckner 4 and the fey sprees of Elgar’s Enigma mark out the Allegro Vivace and the finale whirls dancingly away with all the vivacity of Fibich’s Third Symphony …The brief After a reading of Guerra Junqueiro is mildly Straussian with some very attractive lines for the solo violin at the very end of the work. Of far more interest is what it seems is recognised as de Freitas Branco’s finest orchestral work: Artificial Paradises. This is in effect a tone poem and was inspired by Thomas de Quincey’s novel ‘Confessions of an Opium-Eater’. It can be counted in the company of Lyapunov’s tone poem Hashish and von Bülow’s even earlier Nirvana. The composer read this in a French translation made by Baudelaire. The music is a pretty exotic brew and most impressive—in fact I ended up playing this again —twice in quick succession…It is a most atmospheric piece: glistering, silken, delicately lyrical, swooningly Debussian and ecstatically priapic in the best manner of Bax’s Spring Fire. There’s even a Scriabin-style trumpet reminiscent of The Poem of Ecstasy. You get the picture—and it’s a beguilingly luxuriant picture too. Several sections put me in mind of Franck’s erotic Psyche…It would be a mistake to pass over de Freitas Branco. His symphonies, tone poems, violin concerto and much else will reward your effort. All the more so if you have a taste for pastoral and even urbane impressionism with a reactionary Franckian accent.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2009

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]

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