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Robert Reilly
CatholiCity, December 2010

FREITAS BRANCO, L. de: Orchestral Works, Vol. 3 (Cassuto) – Symphony No. 3 / The Death of Manfred / Suite alentejana No. 2 8.572370
FREITAS BRANCO, L. de: Orchestral Works, Vol. 4 (Cassuto) – Symphony No. 4 / Vathek 8.572624

Marco Polo/Naxos gave us the magnificent symphonies of Portuguese composer Joly Braga Santos, and now Naxos is following that up with the release of the orchestral works of his teacher, Luis de Freitas Branco (1890–1955), including his Four Symphonies. The most recent CDs include Symphony No. 3, The Death of Manfred, and Suite Alentejana No. 2 (8.572370), as well as Symphony No. 4 and Vathek – Symphonic Poem (8.572624), both under the inspired direction of Álvaro Cassuto, with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra. The late Romantic Third Symphony is so immediately appealing I suggest you start with it.

David Barker
MusicWeb International, December 2010

One of two unknown (to me) composers in my list this year. I was a convert to Branco’s countryman and contemporary, Joly Braga Santos a number of years ago, so just how good this music was perhaps should not have been such a surprise. The symphony is grandly impressive, the Suite is full of Iberian sunshine, Manfred a work for strings in the best British tradition. Now to investigate the first two volumes and await the next.

Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International, November 2010

Writing as I am from a wet and windy Britain I see Portugal as a country where the sun meets the sea and where a relaxing holiday in wall-to-wall heat is the main attraction. I know very little about 20th century Portuguese classical music. True, Symphonies by Joly Braga Santos did come out and I purchased two (Marco Polo 8.225233—Symphony No 4 and 8.223879 Symphonies 1 and 5). Luis de Freitas Branco was his teacher and is, as the booklet notes written by conductor Álvaro Cassuto himself remind us “the most important Portuguese composer of the 20th Century”. This then is volume three of a series and with a 4th Symphony already in the can we await without too much delay the next volume. I reviewed the previous one of the 2nd Symphony (Naxos 8.572059) and as a result sought out Symphony 1 (Naxos 8.570785) so I am beginning to feel that I am getting to know the composer’s music.

The 3rd Symphony is the biggest canvas so far, just exceeding the previous symphony but only by about three minutes. Although completed in 1944, it can in many ways be heard as a wartime symphony. Apparently the composer had been working on it for well over ten years. It falls into four movements. The extra-long first is in sonata-form. After a short slow introduction there is a defiant first theme and an elegiac even pastoral second theme. There is also a rather liturgical one, a little like the Gregorian chant melody used in the 2nd Symphony, which here is harmonized largely in fourths and fifths. These ideas are dwelt upon and brooded over throughout. I found the drama of it always gripping and always retaining my attention.

The main theme of the second movement also in sonata-form, rather like that of the 2nd Symphony is rather melancholic, modal and folk-like being stated at one point, in a very English sort of a way, on the cor anglais. It is a very beautiful movement and one to listen to regularly. The Third is just marked as an Allegro and I hasten to add not sounding like a Scherzo, I find it the least successful although its ternary form is clear. The finale is strong and noble with an amazingly mysterious Lento section three minutes before the work ends in a joyous and determined dance. The word ‘magisterial’ used at the back of the disc seems a good summing up of the overall feel of this impressive work.

In contrast to the symphony the brief but very moving ‘The Death of Manfred’ is slow and generally quiet throughout. Marked to be played ‘Larghetto doloroso’ it is scored for string sextet played here however by the rich-sounding strings of the RTÉ Orchestra. When he was as young as fifteen no doubt under the spell of Byron, Freitas Branco composed his first orchestral work ‘Manfred, Dramatic Symphony for soloists, chorus and orchestra’; it seems however that this work was never a part of the larger one and that this one was played in Lisbon in 1906. Its mood is utterly mournful with two major climaxes. It deserves to be much better known.

The Suite Alentejano No 2 is as enjoyable and charming and as beautifully orchestrated as the First Suite of 1917 (couple with the 1st Symphony). They are similarly planned with an opening Prelude evoking the expansive landscape of the Alentejano district where the composer had a large estate. Next comes, in both suites, an Intermezzo. Álvaro Cassuto, as well as being the conductor and general scholar on this composer, tells us that on the “occasion of the work’s premiere in 1941 in Porto, programme notes were supplied “probably not sanctioned by the composer” but which said that the music described “a group of women seated in a circle, offer a picturesque scene. They work and sing a happy song””. The third movement in both suites emphasizes dancing. In the first it was a Fandango and here we are “At a fair” using a few local popular melodies and with, towards the end, an “increase of rhythm and colour” reverberating into an exciting conclusion.

…the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra are wonderful. They’re obviously quick readers and more importantly quick ‘understanders’ of the style and language. Álvaro Cassuto is certainly on good terms with them and understands what the composer is trying to say. Not only is the music of value but at Naxos price this CD is a gift and surely recommends itself.

Raymond Tuttle
Fanfare, November 2010

Seriously, what would we do without Naxos and its seeming quest to record every piece of classical music ever written? This is the third release in the label’s series devoted to the orchestral works of Luís de Freitas Branco, a Portuguese composer who lived between 1890 and 1955. (If the name is familiar, it might be because his brother Pedro was a prominent conductor.) He was a precocious youngster, studied with Humperdinck, and later taught Portugal’s second most important composer from this period, that being Joly Braga Santos, whose music also is excellent.

The Third Symphony was completed in 1944, although he began composing it 14 years earlier. It is typical of what I have discerned to be Freitas Branco’s style, which might be described as “a little bit of this and a little bit of that.” The composer clearly was wide-eared during his formative years and adulthood, and listening to this symphony, one thinks “that sounds like Bruckner,” or “this sounds like Respighi,” or Nielsen, or what have you. I’m certainly not suggesting that Freitas Branco copied anyone. I’m merely saying that, in the absence of a distinctive style of his own, the whole of European classical music—its more conservative branches, anyway—is just an arm’s length away. That said, the first movement opens strikingly, and manages to remain striking, in spite of its discursiveness. (At 18:21, it is by far the longest of the four movements.) The remaining three movements are not quite on that level, but are by no means boring or bad. Freitas Branco’s melodic ideas are at least good, if not great, and he manages them well, so no one should go home unhappy.

His take on Byron’s anti-hero dates from 1906. Freitas Branco wrote a dramatic symphony called Manfred during this same period, but The Death of Manfred is an independent work. This 10-minute orchestral work has not been recorded until now, and as far as I am concerned, that is no great loss. Of mood there is plenty, but there is little of real substance here: In one ear and out the other. Schumann and Tchaikovsky handled Manfred with greater skill.

The attractive Suite Alentejana No. 1 was included on Naxos’s/Cassuto’s first Freitas Branco CD (8.570765), and the second, from 1927, is presented here, to close this CD. It is in three movements. A thoughtful, pastoral Preludio is followed by a brief, even more low-key Intermezzo, and the suite ends with a colorful Final. It is only in this work—and in the Final in particular—that one becomes acutely aware that one is listening to the work of a composer from the Iberian peninsula.

I don’t doubt conductor Cassuto’s affinity for this music—he wrote the booklet notes—nor his skill as a conductor. The Irish orchestra (like Cassuto, repeaters from the previous two volumes) plays these works gamely, and with more than adequate execution. In short, everything about this CD is satisfactory, but one’s best shot at a transforming musical experience comes in the Third Symphony, and then somewhat fitfully. Still, I’ve been following this series and it would be wrong to say that I am disappointed by this latest entry. Next to come, Symphony No. 4?

Carl Bauman
American Record Guide, September 2010

Luis de Freitas Branco (1890–1955) may not be well known, but the notes tell us that he is Portugal’s leading composer of the first half of the 20th Century. Aside from studying in Berlin and Paris, he basically spent his life in Lisbon. He became an active musicologist, a teacher and mentor of younger composers, soughtafter lecturer, and music critic, as well as a composer.

Here we have a spectrum of his music from early to late. The Death of Manfred was written in 1905 and 1906 along with his first orchestral work Manfred, Dramatic Symphony for Soloists, Chorus, and Orchestra. This is a single movement work scored for pairs of violins, violas, and cellos, all muted, and an unmuted double bass. It is, of course, a single slow movement based on a feeling of suffering. It is really quite attractive.

The Suite Alentejana 2 from 1927 is the most immediately attractive of the three works here. It is in three movements based on the rich folklore of Alentejo, a region southeast of Lisbon where the composer had a large ranch and did much of his composing. The themes vary from a slow I to a quicker II and a brilliant III, which may remind some of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Capriccio Espagnol. This is a wonderful folk music suite.

Freitas Branco began writing the symphony in 1930 and finished it in 1944. It is a massive work lasting 46 minutes. I begins with an adagio that reminds some of Bruckner; and it is followed by an allegro that is a majestic orchestral unison, which, in turn, leads into a second theme with a slower tempo. Many other themes are introduced. II is much less complex and is a lento in sonata form. III is in ABA form. The scheme is similar to III of Brahms’s Symphony 1. IV begins furiously and moves to a sonata form, ending with a lento section and a long coda.

Alvaro Cassuto leads the Spanish orchestra very well, and Naxos supplies a decent recording and good notes. People who are willing to be a little adventurous should enjoy this.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, May 2010

Born into a wealthy Lisbon family in 1890, and enjoying a privileged musical education in Berlin and Paris, Luis de Freitas Branco became the most famous Portuguese composer during the first half of the 20th century. He largely pushed aside thoughts of becoming a national composer, most of his output influenced by his years in the French metropolis, and though he developed a personal style, it was tonal music that largely ignored the changes engendered by the Second Viennese School. The Third Symphony had a long gestation period having started in 1930 and taking fourteen years to complete. The opening movement has drama; the second a mix of lyricism and warmth, while clashing harmonies create an unsettled mood in the following Allegro. The finale is totally contrasting to all that has gone before, the vivacious and happy mood bringing the work to a colourful conclusion. Having in his younger years composed Manfred, a dramatic symphony for soloists, chorus and orchestra, his single movement, Death of Manfred is scored for a string sextet. Solemn and desperately sad, it must surely stand among the finest works composed in this genre. The disc ends with the second Suite Alentejana, the thematic material derived from the folk music of Alentajo, a region just south of his birthplace. Transparently scored, the three movements combining subtle and primary colours and closing with a noisy scene at the local fair. Ireland’s RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra is in superb form, the strings in Manfred a real quality act that would place them high in the world premiere league. We have to thank the outstanding Portuguese conductor, Alvaro Cassuto, for this the third volume in the composer’s orchestral music. Stunningly recorded.

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