Walter Braunfels: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2 / BBC Concert Orchestra; Johannes Wildner


This second disc from Dutton of orchestral music by Walter Braunfels continues a small revival of the German composer's music, which appears to have been jumpstarted by the 2010 release of his early opera Die Vogel from the Los Angeles Opera. All three of the works here are world premiere recordings, and likely the first time each has been played since early in the 20th century. Johannes Wildner leads the BBC Concert Orchestra in superb performances.

Walter Braunfels (1882-1954) writes in the German classical-romantic tradition. The music demands great virtuosity from the entire orchestra with high demands placed on the brass section in particular. I was reminded of a number of composers including Stravinsky, Mahler, Elgar and Hindemith but above all, Richard Strauss, especially in the opening Symphonic Variations. The three works on the program span a period of nearly forty years and each, with its own distinctive atmosphere, is altogether very memorable and reflects the composer's changing methods of expression and views on tonality over time. It's a fascinating transition to take in, the earlier two works being immediately appealing and the late Sinfonia Brevis more challenging, but ultimately more interesting.

The disc opens with the first orchestral work the composer completed, the charming, single-movement Symphonic Variations on a French Children's Song, Op. 15, full of Straussian heroism, mischief and wit. The second work is Braunfels' Sinfonia Brevis, Op. 69, a work produced at the end of his career, six years before his death in 1964. It's a darker work, even disturbing at times, and brings into play certain modern yet tonal techniques of the first half of the 20th century. There's much here that is engaging, lyrical, and effectively orchestrated; the composer had clearly claimed his own voice by this time.

Completed in 1929, the concluding piece is an orchestral suite based on Braunfels' opera, The Glass Mountain. Chronologically, it comes midway between the previous two compositions and strikes a balance between the composer's early and late styles. The work is made up of a series of short movements, sounding much like a balletic tableau. Scored for a smaller orchestra, Braunfels displays a true and unique mastery of orchestral color, melody and harmony. The samples in the right sidebar from the album are the concluding two movements of this work. In the first excerpt, listen to the wonderful effect Braunfels achieves adding to the second statement of the opening theme a harmonically disparate passage of rising chromatic scales in the winds. I get chills every time I hear it.

If you're interested in exploring more of Braunfels' orchestral music, there's an earlier release from Dutton of three middle period works (DUT 7304) including his Piano Concerto and the Scottish Fantasy for viola and orchestra. I hope this Braunfels revival gains steam. On the basis of this recording, it would be welcome and gratifying.