Braunfels’ Fantastical Apparitions

C5354 - cover

BRAUNFELS: Fantastical Apparitions on a Theme of Hector Berlioz, Op. 25. Sinfonia Brevis, Op. 69 / Deutsche Staatsphiharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Gregor Bühl, cond / Capriccio C5354

In my earlier reviews of Walter Braunfels’ music (Works for Piano & Orchestra), I noted that, although his music is not nearly as weird as the lurid album cover suggests, he “was clearly a solid composer who used classical form in a sort of Straussian aesthetic with a little Scriabin thrown in for flavor.” In this CD, however, the opening work is based on Mephistopheles’ “Une puce gentile” from La damnation de Faust, and is very colorful indeed. This is its first full recording.

It also helps that Gregor Bühl is a very energetic conductor who clearly likes this music and gives it all he has. Leaning on Berlioz, Braunfels managed to create a piece nearly as colorful as his model if not quite as spiky in its orchestration as his model. There are some very explosive moments, though, particularly in the “third Apparition,” yet unlike Berlioz, Braunfels immediately follows this with a slow, ultra-Romantic section that sounds like MGM movie music of the 1940s. Braunfels wrote this piece in 1914-17, when the mere idea of lushly-scored movie music was about 20 years in the future, but the comparison still stands. The ensuing variation is also slow, goopy, and unimaginatively tonal.

This was Braunfels’ weakness: a prediliction for the obvious in music, sometimes even moreso than his model, Strauss. If you like this sort of music, knock yourself out, but in a set of variations based on Berlioz I really expected something more original and imaginative. Braunfels redeems himself somewhat in the ensuing variations beginning with the seventh, but by then my attention had strayed and I was angry at him for descending to Romantic mush. Hearing those two variations, I could understand why this is the piece’s first complete recording. You’d have to threaten my life to make me conduct those two pieces—and the 12th “Apparition” isn’t much of a prize, either.

Happily, the Sinfonia Brevis from 1948 is a much more advanced and interesting work. The title is a bit of a misnomer—at 31 minutes long, this Sinfonia isn’t brief at all—but the music does have a more interesting structure and good development. Indeed, I really liked this piece; it sounds like Strauss if Strauss had developed his harmonic language beyond Elektra, which he never really did (on the contrary, beginning with Der Rosenkavalier he regressed). Moreover, there seemed to me more of a menacing feel to this music, particularly in the first movement, than in the variations on Berlioz’ tune. The second movement here is as good an indication as any as to Braunfels’ growth as a composer: although his themes are broad and somewhat melodic, he completely avoids the sappy style he wrote in 1914-17, much to his credit, although it goes on too long and wears out its welcome by the five-minute mark. The third-movement scherzo, however, returns us to original and imaginative music (though the slow middle section becomes tiresome), while the last movement

In toto, this is not as consistently interesting a disc of Braunfels’ music as the first one I reviewed, but it has several very fine moments mixed in with some banal and tiresome ones.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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