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Walter BRAUNFELS (1882-1954)
Fantastical Apparitions on a Theme by Hector Berlioz, Op 25 (1914-17) [51:38]
Sinfonia Brevis, Op 69 (1948) [30:50]
Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz/Gregor Bühl
rec. 2018, Philharmonie, Ludwigshafen, Germany
CAPRICCIO C5354 [82:28]

Capriccio is one of the labels that has been leading the renaissance on CD of the music of Walter Braunfels. The conductor of this present disc, Gregor Bühl has appeared on a couple of their previous Braunfels issues: a programme that included the Scottish Fantasy for Viola and Orchestra (review) and a disc that I reviewed which contained his output for piano and orchestra. This very generously filled new release is valuable because, apart from the intrinsic interest of the music itself, Bühl’s programme presents two very contrasted works, one from each end of Braunfels’ creative career. Also, as we shall see, one of the works appears on disc for the first time in its complete, uncut form.

As we are reminded in the notes, which are by my sometime MusicWeb International colleague, Jens F Laurson, Braunfels was one of the many composers and other artists who fell foul of the Nazis in 1930s Germany. He was stripped of all his posts and his music was banned. However, luckier than many, Braunfels was not incarcerated by the Nazi regime; rather, he went into internal exile in a remote part of South-West Germany, near Lake Constance. Here he continued to compose in private but with no prospect of his new compositions achieving a hearing. Happily, after the war Braunfels was rehabilitated and restored to the Conservatory in Cologne. The Sinfonia Brevis in F minor was a product of the composer’s post-war years but, though he had been rehabilitated, this work, which was new to me, doesn’t sound like a cheerful expression of relief or gratitude. Rather, the music seems to me to be very serious in tone and surely demonstrates that the difficult decade or so that Braunfels had endured had left its mark on him.

The piece is cast in four movements. It will be evident from the fact that the work takes just over 30 minutes to play, that the title ‘Brevis’ does not refer to length. Jens Laurson rightly describes it as “taut and firm in form and shape.” The first movement, marked Allegro, is tense and often quite powerful. The orchestra scoring is often pretty full and the music seems very strong to me. The Adagio, ma non troppo that follows is the longest movement. It begins in timeless tranquillity but at 1:14 the mood becomes troubled. Before long apparent tranquillity is restored but from now on it seems to me that the calm episodes have dark undercurrents to them. The musical lines are long and spacious and I think Jens Laurson is right to say that the music “hints here and there at a modern look at Parsifal.” There are one or two quite potent climaxes, including one which concludes the movement. The Scherzo is swift and nimble. Between 2:12 and 4:35 there’s an Adagio passage which one might label the Trio, though I’m not sure that description is all that accurate. The finale is marked Moderato. It begins with fugal writing, the music tense and somewhat angular. I found this movement a little hard to grasp – the fault is mine – probably because it never quite shakes off a rather troubled, unquiet countenance. The work ends in a subdued mood. The Sinfonia Brevis is not as immediately appealing a work as its companion on this disc but it’s a very serious composition that demands respect. Though I hadn’t heard the music before it seemed to me to be very well served by Gregor Bühl and the orchestra.

Fantastische Erscheinungen über ein Thema von Hector Berlioz (Fantastical Apparitions on a Theme by Hector Berlioz) was written between 1914 and 1917. Unlike the Sinfonia Brevis, this is a work which I have heard before in the 2001 CPO recording conducted by Dennis Russell Davies (review). That performance plays for 48:43 and the difference of some three minutes between it and Bühl’s performance is explained by the fact that Bühl presents the score complete whereas Davies omitted the 9th Apparition. Reviewing the CPO disc, Rob Barnett was perplexed by the excision of this section. I’m not surprised, since the CPO notes say nothing worthwhile on the subject, merely adding, as a postscript that the passage has been omitted “as earlier often was the case in performances of the work.” Fortunately, the Capriccio notes are much more forthcoming. Jens Laurson explains that as early as 1920 the conductor Arthur Nikisch pressed Braunfels to shorten the work and at some time before its last pre-war performances in 1933 the ninth Apparition was cut. (However, since the score was published in 1919, I imagine the music must have been there still in the performing materials.) Bühl restores it here, thereby presenting the first complete recording of the work.

The thematic basis of the work is Méphistophélès’ ‘Song of the Flea’ from La damnation de Faust. Braunfels divides his score up into a very brief Introduction – which plays for 0:25 here – twelve Apparitions (the first of which is the Theme) and a Finale. I think Braunfels’ use of the word ‘Apparitions’ is quite interesting, for although one might regard the work as a set of variations on Berlioz’s theme, in fact the treatment of the theme is infinitely more complex than that and so elaborate is the musical construction that Braunfels builds that it’s not easy to keep track of the theme. One 1920s commentator, referenced in the notes to both recordings, went so far as to suggest that the work was, as Jens Laurson puts it, “a six-movement symphony-in-hiding”. I follow the logic of that commentator, although the argument is slightly compromised by the pauses between most of the individual Apparitions.

The score is full of interest. The third Apparition is underpinned by a quick-march rhythm and eventually comes to sound like a storm is being portrayed. The fourth Apparition is full of Straussian opulence and is richly scored. This sounds to me somewhat akin to the orchestral backdrop to one of Strauss’s operatic love scenes. The lyricism is carried over into the next two Apparitions, albeit in amore delicate fashion: in the sixth Apparition I particularly relished the lovely melodic lines given to the strings.

The next three Apparitions might be regarded as together forming a scherzo. The first of these three episodes, the 7th Apparition, is brilliantly scored, the music deft and light-footed. The 9th Apparition, now happily restored, is marked Sehr schnell – Trio – Tempo I. The scherzo material is swift – definitely one-in-a-bar – and struck me as having a whiff of the Gothic or grotesque to it; was this, I wondered, Braunfels conjuring up the world of the finale of Symphonie fantastique? The brief trio is also swift and the writing for both the woodwinds and the strings is quite perky. As I listened, I thought that this is good music, unfairly discarded. I also reflected that excising it was a rather absurd gesture: if you’re going to perform a score that lasts for nearly fifty minutes what difference does a cut of some three minutes make?

Apparition 11 is a substantial episode. As the music unfolds, it becomes increasingly march-like, tense and dark-hued, building to a powerful climax. The Apparition that follows is dark and imposing but in the Finale the darkness of the immediately preceding sections is banished. Here, the music is lively and extrovert, the orchestration rich and colourful.

This is an inventive and most attractive score. Personally, I find it the more immediately appealing of the two works on this disc, though in saying that I’m not seeking to minimise the quality of Sinfonia Brevis.

Both works are very well played by the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz and they have been given good sound by the engineers. The documentation is good, though I wish Jens Laurson, who writes well about the composer and the background to the works in question had been allowed even more space to write about the music per se since these two works will be new to many people.

Devotees of Braunfels’s music who already have the CPO disc ought, I think, to consider stretching the budget to acquire this Capriccio CD in order to hear the Fantastic Apparitions complete. If you’re coming new to the work then the completeness of Bühl’s performance – and its excellence – means that this is the one to choose.

These very good recordings of two important Braunfels scores are very welcome additions to the composer’s burgeoning discography.

John Quinn

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