Discovering Walter Braunfels

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BRAUNFELS: Witches’ Sabbath, Op. 8 for Piano & Orchestra. Konzertstücke, Op. 64 for Piano & Orchestra. Hebridean Dances / Tatjana Blome, pno; Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Gregor Bühl, cond / Capriccio C5345

According to the notes for this release, “Walter Braunfels is a composer whose music died twice: Once when the Nazis declared his music ‘degenerate art,’ then again when post-war Germany had little use for the various schools of tonal music; when the arbiters of taste considered any form of romantic music – almost the whole pre-war aesthetic – to be tainted.” This is the sixth CD in Capriccio’s Braunfels edition with two world premiere recordings, the first and last works.

Although the Witches’ Sabbath contains some “demonic” effects, it is not nearly as weird as Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, yet Braunfels was clearly a solid composer who used classical form in a sort of Straussian aesthetic with a little Scriabin thrown in for flavor. What helps is that both pianist Blome and conductor Bühl dig into this music with an almost Slavic intensity of expression; they really want you to enjoy and be impressed by this music, and their approach works miracles. In addition, Braunfels really knew musical principles inside and out and wasn’t afraid to attempt dramatic flourishes. From start to finish, this is a spectacular piece that deserves much wider circulation.

The Konzertstücke from 1946 is also a dramatic work, this time with pregnant pauses in the stately opening (and oftimes dramatic) opening section. When the tempo picks up, it is with an insistent sort of march rhythm which then morphs into a middle-tempo, odd tune played by the bassoon while the piano weaves its busy way in and out of the orchestral texture.

The Hebridean Dances from the 1950s is, perhaps, less adventurous music than the first two works, but no less well crafted, using minor keys and descending chromatic harmonies to make its point. The second piece in this suite reveals another side of Braunfels, as the music is broad and atmospheric, while the third is an upbeat little dance in asymmetric rhythm while the fourth is an odd, spacey little piece that sounds Middle Eastern.

All in all, a fascinating glimpse into the work of a very serious and very interesting composer who appears to have always been open to new things. Well worth acquiring!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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