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David Hurwitz, June 2020

Do sample it, you won’t be sorry. © 2020 Watch complete review

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, June 2013

…all the music here is very attractive and colourful and, in Vathek, often exotic.

…the RTÉ Orchestra and Álvaro Cassuto [are] persuasive advocates for the music, and I find myself in complete agreement with that verdict. © 2013 MusicWeb International Read complete review

Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International, June 2011

To think, there was a time when I hadn’t heard of Luis de Freitas Branco. In the last couple of years I have reviewed his Second Symphony (Naxos 8.572059) and the Third (Naxos 8.572370) and purchased the First Symphony (Naxos 8.570765). I have come to really admire and to enjoy his almost unknown work.

The booklet notes were been written by the conductor and he comments that “Freitas Branco is the most important Portuguese composer of the first half of the twentieth century”. And he should know because he has recorded all of the works and is a recognised expert on the composer. However, I still cannot understand why an Irish orchestra, as good as they are, have been chosen to record them. The same goes for the Marco Polo CDs of the orchestral works of Joly Braga Santos (Freitas Branco’s pupil). Surely a Portuguese orchestra would do as good a job, and might even already know some of the music.

This, Freitas Branco’s Fourth and last symphony begins (like the Mass) with a Gregorian melody in unison, the Kyrie Eleison. It then launches out on a journey investing occasionally in other ‘plainchantey’ tunes but never repeating its opening. The first movement—which is eleven and a half minutes long—is a vast ternary structure once the Allegro kicks in but with the A section falling into several sections. Whilst listening I was asking myself if there is anything about this music which is especially Portuguese; certainly there’s nothing Spanish about it. My all too-brief excursions into Portugal—and I don’t mean just the Algarve but into the smaller towns and countryside of what is a very beautiful and varied landscape—have introduced me to a religious, noble and proud people—even more so I should imagine in Freitas Branco’s day. They are a nation full of colour and able to be festive despite their in-built passion and gravity. These characteristics can be sensed in this music. And as we embark on the second movement, an Adagio, we encounter another characteristic, that of an aching fervour which although calm has deep undercurrents of seriousness. This is a gentle episode building to a “majestic conclusion”.

The Scherzo, which follows, includes a tambourine reminding us of the dancing which one sees in villages all over the country especially in celebration of saint’s days. It is brief and acts as an introduction to the vast finale. This begins portentously and ends with a noble Elgarian chorale; after all St. George is Portugal’s patron saint as well! In between it moves through an almost pastoral allegro but with contrasting tempi surrounding it. This is often light, mysterious and fleeting and often fervent and strong. Despite its length this movement—and indeed this very enjoyable symphony as a whole—does not outstay its welcome. Of all of the composer’s symphonies it is this one that I might well return to most often.

The other work on this generously filled CD is Vathek subtitled a Symphonic Poem in the form of Variations on an Oriental Theme. It is truly original and remarkable both in its structure and in its harmony and orchestration. It brings this series of Freitas Branco orchestral music to a marvellous conclusion.

The symphonic poem, which may well have been inspired by early Stravinsky and certainly by Rimsky-Korsakov, has a curious form which has been dictated by a story-line based on a novel by William Beckford. It concerns Vathek the Caliph of Samarah who has five palaces build for him each dedicated to a different sense. It would have created an almighty storm in 1913 about the same time as the premiere of ‘Le Sacre’ had it been heard then. Its experimental harmony from a man of just 23 years is quite remarkable. That said, he had been moving towards some sort of harmonic experimentation a few years earlier in his Artificial Paradises of 1919 (found on Volume 2 in this series).

This work which was not played in its complete form until 1961 begins with a brass Introduction that is polytonal and would have hit the original audience hard. They were, after all, used to a diet of Tchaikovsky and highly conservative and now forgotten Portuguese masters. The theme is announced on a solo bassoon, which is deliberately oriental in contour. Then there is a Prologue with an extraordinary twelve-tone chord built in fourths. This is not dissimilar to the one Stravinsky conjures from the strings at the end of ‘The Sage’ (bar before Fig 72 in Le Sacre). The five variations which follow represent the five palaces: first of the ‘Eternal Feast’, secondly a gloriously romantic ‘Temple of Melody’, then an extraordinary ‘Delight of the Eyes’ Temple which Freitas Branco sets as a brief ‘fugato in 59 voices’ a cacophony of counterpoint which I wont even attempt to describe. Fourthly we have a ‘Palace of Perfumes’ and finally a ‘Refuge of Happiness’ in which an oriental dance is set out for us accompanied by beautifully and scantily clad maidens. The composer cogitates on these matters in a bipartite Epilogue, which ends in a grand chorale.

So, for much less than a mediocre bottle of Port this CD is well worth investigating, as indeed are any of the four devoted to this composer. I for one am very pleased to have been given the chance by Naxos to get to know this most enjoyable and interesting composer.

Roger Hecht
American Record Guide, May 2011

Luís de Freitas Branco is a good composer and worth discovering. These two works are probably his most important, but the atmospheric music on the earlier discs of this series is enjoyable, too. The (Spanish) RTE Symphony Symphony and Naxos’s sound are both very good…Cassuto’s notes are clear and authoritative.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Brian Wilson - Download Roundup
MusicWeb International, February 2011

Luís de Freitas Branco wasn’t even a name to me until Naxos commenced this series of recordings of his music—music which they aptly describe as ‘eminently satisfying yet unaccountably neglected repertoire’. So impressed was I by the music, performances and recording—mp3 only, but sounding fine—of the chant-based Fourth Symphony and the exotic Vathek that I now intend to listen to the three earlier volumes: 8.570765 - review, 8.572050 - review and review - and 8.572370 - review. As with all recent classicsonline downloads of Naxos and several other labels, the booklet forms part of the deal. If in doubt, stream from Naxos Music Library - here - where you’ll also find the booklet….

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, January 2011

Continuing their survey of Portuguese composer Luís de Freitas Branco’s (1890–1955) orchestral works, Naxos now gives us a fourth volume with a symphonic poem written near the beginning of his career, and the last of his four symphonies finished near the end of it. Oddly enough the earlier piece is much more progressive, so much so that it had to wait almost half a century for its first complete performance.

Begun in 1944, it would take him eight years to finish the symphony (1952). While calling for substantial forces, the composer exercises a neoclassical restraint that precludes the embarras de richesses frequently found in late romantic music.

Like the second symphony (1926–27) it’s based on plainsong melodies, one of which is immediately quoted in the reserved opening. The tempo increases, and using episodic building blocks sometimes suggestive of Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) [track-1, beginning at 06:50], Freitas Branco constructs a thrilling sonic edifice. The opening ideas are then restated and worked into an exultant final coda.

In the following adagio, reverentially ambulant passacaglia-like outer sections surround a radiant central one. The movement creates a feeling of serenity that’s quickly dispelled by a hyperactive scherzo. Here an antsy, five-note motif followed by an engaging, folk-sounding tune (EF) generate a high level of excitement, anticipating the symphony’s exhilarating finale.

This is an allegro, which begins with festive flourishes based on a fragment of EF. But they soon subside, and the music becomes hesitantly pensive, coalescing into an imposing solemn chorale (IS). An arresting development with coronary drumbeats follows, and then a recapitulation terminating in a breathtaking final coda based on IS. This is one of those complex romantic works requiring repeated listening to be fully appreciated.

Based on English writer William Beckford’s (1760–1844) Gothic novel Vathek (1786), the next selection is known by the same name, but the composer goes on to describe it as a “Symphonic Poem in the Form of Variations on an Oriental Theme.” The story concerns Caliph Vathek and the five palaces he builds dedicated to each of the human senses (see the album notes for the composer’s synoptic preface to the score). Written in 1913 and at just over half an hour, there are some modernistic touches that put it so far ahead of the times it wouldn’t receive its first complete performance until 1961.

The introduction takes the form of a polytonal brass fanfare similar to the one that opens Paul Dukas’ (1865–1935) ballet La Péri of the previous year (1912). The bassoon then states the exotic Eastern-sounding main subject. It signifies the Caliph, and may bring Rimsky-Korsakov’s (1844–1908) Le Coq d’Or (The Golden Cockerel, 1907) to mind. A brief prologue follows in which the winds offer up some additional melodic exotica accompanied by what at the time must have been bewildering twelve-tone chords on the strings.

Five variations meant to represent each of the palaces are next, beginning with the one dedicated to the sense of taste. Entitled “Eternal Feast” [track-8], here the theme undergoes a transformation that’s alternately agitated and queasy—maybe the Caliph ate too much!

The next two palatial variations couldn’t be more different! Devoted to hearing, the “Temple of Melody” [track-9] is characterized by a gorgeous extended variant of the main theme. But the one honoring sight, “Delight of the Eyes” [track-10], is a dissonant fifty-nine voice fugato that anticipates Gyorgy Ligeti’s (1923–2006) wilder moments. It might best be described as symphonic pointillism.

In the fourth olfactory variation, “Palace of the Perfumes” [track-11], repeated figurations for the high instruments suggest fragrant scents wafting through harem halls. It sets the mood for the final tactile variation, “Refuge of Happiness” [track-12], where we’re told beautiful maidens attend the Caliph and his guests. Sensuous and dance-like, it brings Richard Strauss’ (1864–1949) Salome (1905) to mind.

Vathek closes with a mesmerizing epilogue exuding Eastern mysticism that’s once again way ahead of its time. It anticipates such works as Bartók’s (1881–1945) The Miraculous Mandarin (1926) and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936).

As on his previous Naxos releases of Freitas Branco’s orchestral music, Portuguese conductor Álvaro Cassuto leads the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland in stunning performances. The attention to instrumental detail, phrasing and dynamics he lavishes on what are two of this composer’s most complex scores is exceptional. Maestro Cassuto and his Irish colleagues are owed a vote of thanks for championing a composer worthy of wider attention.

Done in Dublin’s National Concert Hall, the recordings project a vast soundstage in reverberant surroundings, which should appeal to those with a penchant for wetter sonics. The overall orchestral timbre is good with clear highs and well-defined bass. The only reservation would be occasional upper midrange peakiness in ff passages.

WRUV Reviews, January 2011

Portuguese composer Luis de Freitas Branco (1890–1955) was ahead of his time in his compositions. Symphony No. 4 was structured as gregorian chants (no voices, but instruments) and Vathek, a neo classical work was composed in 1913 but not performed until 1950.

Chris Hathaway
88.7 KUHF News, January 2011

Portuguese maestro Álvaro Cassuto continues his admirable series for Naxos of the music of his countryman, Luís de Freitas Branco (1890–1955), including his final symphony and the imposing Vathek Variations. The pieces are almost forty years apart, the Symphony having been completed in 1952 (being some eight years in the making) and Vathek in 1913, when Freitas Branco was only 23.

The Symphony opens with a plainchant-like unison figure in the winds, with piano open fifth string responses—reminiscent, in some ways, of Paul Hindemith. In fact, the influence of Gregorian chant is constant throughout the work. The main section of the first movement is quick to unfold. Freitas Branco at sixty is not necessarily a different composer from Freitas Branco at twenty-three, but he has evolved into something more of a “romantic”. He goes from this large symphonic structure of a first movement (in a deceptively simple three-part ABA form, with stunning climaxes at strategic points) to an equally compelling slow movement based on an ostinato, or repeated figure. The Scherzo (Allegro vivace) is very nearly a throwback to the composer’s youth, but not quite; it starts out almost like a modernized Beethoven scherzo, leading to a fandango-like middle or trio section, and an abrupt ending. The Scherzo is the slowest of the four movements.

The Finale returns to what Mr Cassuto (who wrote the liner notes himself) calls a spirit of “monumentality”. It is an introduction and allegro which grows out of a ponderous, march-like theme. This Finale, in contrast to the third movement, is the longest of the four—lasting slightly over a quarter-hour and using the brass section in a way that sounds, at least to this reviewer, like something of a cross between Bruckner and the late British composer George Lloyd.

Vathek is a different piece. Though finished in 1913, it was not performed until 1950—and, according to Cassuto (who gave the first complete performance in the early 1960s, in Lisbon), in somewhat expurgated form. The variation that was omitted was No. 3 (Delight of the Eyes), which uses polychordal structures that almost anticipate the later work of William Schuman. Though a shorter work than the Symphony, Vathek is in some ways a bigger work—not only because it is scored for a much larger orchestra but because of its dimensions. Each of the five variations is an experience in itself, almost a complete piece. The form of the piece is an Introduction, a presentation of the theme, a three-minute bridge piece which Freitas Branco called Prologue, the variations (with programmatic French titles) and then an Epilogue, longer than any of the variations. Vathek was based on a French-language novel by the early nineteenth-century British writer William Beckford. The Variations are meant to depict the Caliph Vathek’s magnificent palace and its beauties and amenities. It is an outstanding example of musical exoticism. It is a work, perhaps, that demands repeated hearings.

Maestro Cassuto is a passionate and persuasive advocate of this music. He is aided by a first-rate orchestra, the RTÉ National Symphony. This is an unusual example, and a very fine one, of an interpreter putting himself completely at the service of the composer.

For more information on this very compelling disc, go here.

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 Hurwitz, December 2010

Luís de Freitas Branco’s symphonies, with their somewhat Franckian cyclical forms (and sometimes melodies), are more conservative than his impressionist, cutting-edge orchestral works from the turn of the 20th century. Vathek is one such, an amazing, luscious, exotic tone poem in the form of a theme and variations. Unperformed until 1950, just five years before the death of its composer, it is a masterpiece, and one of the most remarkable works of its era (there’s a variation written with something like 59 string parts, almost an anticipation of Messiaen or Ligeti).

In the Fourth Symphony (1944–52) Branco recaptures his youthful fire. The work mixes the modal melodies of Gregorian chant with tangy dissonances and supple, Latin rhythms. The result recalls the Hindemith of, say, Nobilissima Visione, though the scoring is quite different and the handling of form more traditional (save in the multi-sectional finale). Certainly this is the finest of the composer’s four symphonies, and a wonderful work by any measure.

As with previous issues in this series, the performances are splendidly confident. Álvaro Cassuto always is an effective exponent of his countryman’s work, but the engineering is a touch dry, and the timpani in the symphony lacks presence. Still, the importance of the repertoire overrides any secondary considerations. Do try to hear this excellent and distinctive music.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group