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CLASSICAL  June 2008

CLASSICAL June 2008

Subject:

Music from the Portuguese

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 5 Jun 2008 15:52:00 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Twentieth-Century Orchestral Music
from Portugal

*  Fernandes: Violin Concerto in E (1948)
*  Freitas Branco: Symphony No. 2 in b-flat minor (1926)

Alexandre da Costa (violin),
Orchestre symphonique d'Extremadura/Jesus Amigo.
ATMA Classique ACD2 2578  Total time: 73:42

Summary for the Busy Executive: Comfort food.

Between the Renaissance composers Cardoso and Lobo and the Modernist
Braga Santos, I've heard very little classical music from Portugal.  As
far as I can tell, the ferment that seized Spanish music in the nineteenth
century largely passed Portugal by.  Spanish composers studied in France,
Germany, and Italy and became intensely Spanish.  Portuguese composers
studied in the same conservatories and became French, German, and Italian
knockoffs.  The action in the twentieth century seemed largely to transfer
to Brazil.

Armando Jose Fernandes took advanced study with Dukas, Boulanger, and
Stravinsky, among others.  Oddly enough, his violin concerto reminds me
most strongly of Khachaturian's (1940).  The first movement obsesses on
an initial figure which generates all the other themes.  Unfortunately,
it's one of those pieces that steals from everybody and winds up sounding
like nobody.  There's a bit of Brazilian rhythm, *a la* Villa-Lobos,
some Creston-like harmonies, and some standard neoclassic turns of phrase,
but I wonder where the composer is in all this.  Despite the notes and
the insistent rhythms, not all that much happens in this concerto. 
The various sections sound so much alike, due to the similarity of the
thematic shapes, that it all seems to dissolve into a long drone.  Interest
picks up in the lively second-movement scherzo, which hops like a flea
on a hot brick, although the transition to the trio -- essentially, a
full stop and a start -- seems clumsy to me.  I like the slow movement
the best, a straightforward song whose main strain might relate to the
generating idea of the first movement.  Here, however, Fernandes contents
himself with singing rather than with showing off his compositional
smarts, and all for the better.  Nevertheless, it results in something
fundamentally pleasant, rather than heartbreakingly beautiful.  The last
movement, a rondo, totally misfires.  It lacks the brio and fire of a
concerto of that type.  We return to the drone -- a lot of notes and no
significant activity.  A concerto, of course, needn't end with a
pyrotechnical display, but the Fernandes ends on nothing momentous or
even on anything which gives a feeling of rounding things off or of
summing up.

Born into a prominent musical family (his brother Pedro conducted the
premiere of the Fernandes violin concerto -- small world), Luis de Freitas
Branco (1890-1955) studied in Berlin with Hansel und Gretel's Humperdinck.
However, an encounter with Debussy sent him in a more progressive
direction.

The second symphony comes from 1926.  The composer wrote it on the
occasion of his sister's entry into a Carmelite convent.  Part of the
plainchant "Tantum ergo" runs through the score.

Yet, with all of the wide-flung influences on Freitas Branco, the strong
presence of Cesar Franck surprised the hell out of me.  The symphony
opens with the chant, harmonized with Respighian archaism.  We get to
the main allegro, and suddenly it's 1888, with an agitated theme that
would have fit nicely into Franck's d-minor symphony.  A lyrical theme,
related to the chant, is harmonized in a pure, Franckian chromaticism,
and the composer recalls the chant theme at several points in the movement.
The liner notes suggest a faith-vs.-doubt scenario, but to me the movement
exemplifies a conflict between two adjacent musical eras.

The second-movement andantino comes straight out of the slow movement
to the Franck symphony, but the composer writes well, if not with
originality.

A scherzo follows.  The main theme comes from the Tantum ergo chant,
with the initial interval changed from whole to half step.  This simple
change gives the theme a new menace.  The underlying bass rhythm comes
directly from that of the second movement.  Freitas Branco simply speeds
it up.  The liner notes try to make a case for the Modernism of this
movement, but to me it sounds like a minor, though craftsmanlike follower
of Liszt, with that same four-square clunkiness that sometimes afflicts
even the master.  Freitas Branco is aware of this problem, because he
occasionally tries to break things up and obscure the main rhythmic
pulse, just not often enough.

The finale, another sonata-allegro movement, kicks things off with an
agitated theme derived from turning the chant upside-down.  There's a
lyrical theme as well, also fashioned from the upside-down chant.  In
addition, the chant itself makes its appearance in sections of chorale.
The development is framed by two full orchestral unisons -- the first
on D, the latter on A-flat.  I don't doubt that Freitas Branco put these
in as feats of daring, but they don't in practice come off as bold or
outrageous.  After all, The Rite of Spring was over a decade old by this
point.  Again, this is a Nice Symphony, rather than an astonishing one.

The performers are okay.  Violinist da Costa, a Canadian, has a small
tone, although a true one.  The orchestra plays with slight rhythmic
problems, but it's awfully unfair to judge anybody on the basis of
these works.  Let's just say that nobody confounds your expectations.

Steve Schwartz

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