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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Intriguing Find, 12 Feb. 2011
xxsfgsvs "asdargthh" - See all my reviews
This review is from: Freitas Branco: Symphony No.4, Vathek (Audio CD)
If you've got this far, the chances are you've discovered Luis de Freitas Branco through some excellent reviews or you've already sampled his other symphonies. He was a mentor to the younger Portuguese composer Joly Braga Santos, whose early symphonies are immediately attractive and show his formal influences. Branco's symphonies are sometimes tougher, more muscular and harmonically advanced than them and this symphony is, perhaps, more rewarding than some of the Braga Santos Symphonies. The tone poem "Vathek" is a completely different beast: a very daring product of Branco's youth. If anything, this extraordinary tone poem is the main draw of this recording.

The Fourth Symphony has been described as his finest by a number of critics and, as someone new to his work, I can't argue with that. It was written late in his life, around 1950, and shows both late romantic and neo classical influences. In its four quite expansive movements it shows the influences of Cesar Frank and, to a lesser extent, Paul Hindemith. It carries traces of Prokofiev, Bartok (of the Concerto for Orchestra style) and Copland - particularly the emphatic use of the bass drum.

"It is an attractive and accomplished work but I must be quite honest: it certainly doesn't reach the heights of other major twentieth century symphonies and its finale does drag, with a triumphant conclusion after more searching music. The trouble is that this supposed conflict seems a little diffuse and is a bit of an anti climax after the first three movements showed a firm grasp of symphonic form."

I put that in quotation marks because it came from my initial review of the symphony. Having listened again, a number of times, I can see that it is a symphony of real substance. I've mentioned the influences but, like Alfredo Casella's very fine Third Symphony from around the same time, it just doesn't quite sound like anyone else overall.

The four movements have vigour and formal rigour. You'll find noble sounding modal themes with a religious overtone, mixed with more complex harmonies. The two outer movements have plenty of symphonic muscle though, as I said before, the finale could be tighter. The slow movement is quite processional and the third movement scherzo is vigorous with the feel of a street parade. There may be a lack of really memorable themes but this is a very fine symphony well worth sticking with.

The other work is rather more intriguing. "Vathek" was an early work, 1913, being a set of variations on an oriental sounding theme. This music is far more influenced by Ravel, Debussy and more than hints at future works by Messiaen and Ligeti. Add to that more than a touch of Rimsky Korsakov's "Sheherazade" and the performances of the Ballet Russe as a back drop.

It was deemed far too radical a piece for Portuguese audiences and didn't receive its premiere until 1950. Even then, the third variation was omitted. The work depicts, with an introduction and five variations, the five palaces of a caliph.

So what was it that scared those early audiences? Variation three is a real ear opener. It piles on so many layers, culminating in 59 separate string parts, sounding more like hard core Ligeti. This incredibly forward looking music should probably be a major main reason to listen to this work. It lasts over 30 minutes and much of the material is richly and very agreeably scored. It certainly doesn't outstay its welcome: it is a very enjoyable work with three extremely strange minutes in its third variation. It is not the only example of daring scoring and harmonies in the work: the introduction sounds like mature Messiaen and there are tone clusters dotted throughout the piece. "Vathek" is a remarkable piece indeed.

Both works deserve to be heard and performed far more often than they are. Given the lack of alternatives, this is the only recording available and it certainly isn't a bad one. Alvaro Cassutto and the RTE orchestra put in excellent performances, though the sound quality could be a touch clearer. Cassuto has been a great champion of Branco's music and if you like this you should certainly check out the work of his favourite pupil, Joly Braga Santos. Cassuto was a close friend of his and has done his symphonies proud on the Marco Polo label. If you like this disc then all I can say is that the Braga Santos' symphonies are a must have follow up - particularly his radiant Fourth.

So there you have it: Portugal has produced some composers of note in the twentieth century: here's one and Braga Santos is another: Not a lot of people know that. I strongly recommend this recording as well as Cassuto's Braga Santos series. Go for it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What a discovery!, 8 Sept. 2013
L. Grygar (Prague, Czech Republic) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Freitas Branco: Symphony No.4, Vathek (Audio CD)
I was completely unfamiliar with Branco. I've read stuff about (and heard samples of) Vathek that made me click on 'purchase'. Little did I know that aside from a daring piece well ahead of its time (think Ligeti in 1913.. or Langgaard right where he belonged), I'd be getting a soaring symphony that charms you right from the beginning and never loses its appeal. Branco doesn't fuss about his ideas, he just churns them out to keep the whole work moving. Great disc!
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Freitas Branco: Symphony No.4, Vathek
Freitas Branco: Symphony No.4, Vathek by Rté National Symphony Orchestra (Audio CD - 2010)
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