CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Beethoven, Wagner and Freitas Branco

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews new releases featuring works of Beethoven, Wagner and Luis de Freitas Branco.

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, op. 58; Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat, op. 73, EmperorYevgeny Sudbin, piano; with the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä.  Bis SACD-1758.

Vänskä and his Minneapolis band have already done themselves proud with a Beethoven symphony cycle for Bis; now they are back, in the company of St. Petersburg-born Yevgeny Sudbin, who has made his home in the United Kingdom for the last thirteen years, with these offerings of the last two Beethoven piano concertos.  These are part of an ongoing cycle.

These recordings seem to be the product of controlled conditions in an empty auditorium rather than a souvenir of a concert.  Mr. Sudbin has technique aplenty and a notably varied dynamic range, with an equally vast range of many kinds of touch and articulation. Wedded to all this is something much more: a poetic temperament.  Obviously the product of several microphones, the recording has the piano closely miked and likewise the orchestra’s string section — which plays so prominent a role, especially in the first two movements of No. 4.  Mr. Vänskä is admirably aided by the recording team in his aim to bring out every relevant strand of sound, and the result of the collaboration between soloist and orchestra is a marvelous unity of forces — a true integration of piano and orchestra in both works.

Mr. Sudbin uses the composer’s own cadenza in the first movement of No. 4, and succeeds admirably in lending an improvisational quality to the music, employing a much bigger dynamic scale (so it seems) than he does for the body of the movement.  His keen sense of a singing tone and judicious application of pedal, among many other pianistic virtues clearly in evidence, is even more apparent in the second movement of this concerto—essentially a scena for piano and orchestra.  Sudbin’s keen sense of color and timing reach their apogee in the last two notes of the slow movement, the last pppp if not well-nigh so.  The finale is a marvel of clarity and exuberance.  Messrs. Sudbin and Vänskä are superbly matched artists in this, perhaps the first great Romantic piano concerto: the last movement fully confirms this, even more than all the glories of the first two.  The solo ‘cello in tandem with the piano (passim) in the Finale  — almost a throwback to the old Baroque concerto — is admirably brought out without being unduly obtrusive. The articulation of both instruments in the coda is breathtaking.

Yevgeny Sudbin uses a different Steinway for the Emperor, a work cut from seemingly different cloth: for the first time, cadenzas are fully written out and integrated into the body of the piece rather than being something extraneous.  He seems to want a more incisive quality for this concerto.  His truly wonderful sense of coloring and proportion also serve him very well here, and Vänskä draws a wonderfully incisive sound from the Minnesotans.  Again, everything that needs to be heard is clearly heard: Vänskä shows himself, again, a master of orchestral balance who today has few peers.  The work of both men, indeed, shows an ideal of performance in which the overall shape of the piece as une oeuvre—this is true of both concertos—is the uppermost consideration, but seemingly minute details are never neglected. 

The Minnesota strings are always outstanding, but they show new facets of their expressive range in the slow movement of the Emperor.  Both of the pianist’s hands are clearly heard, and Vänskä and the orchestra’s participation again leaves nothing to be desired.  As in the fourth concerto, the last two movements of the Emperor are played without a break.  The Adagio is in B major, with (at its end) the pivotal B natural being lowered to B-flat in an electric moment that sets the stage for the exuberant 6/8 Rondo, back in the home tonality of E-flat.  This magic moment, with horns and pizzicato strings (with the piano anticipating the Rondo theme), is brought out with unbelievable clarity.  The Rondo itself is an absolute delight, using a huge scale of dynamics but nothing untrue to Beethoven at any time. If there is a more expressive and dynamic Emperor on record, I do not know of it.  This recording is a major achievement by all concerned, and very highly recommended.  To acquire this disc, to go


WAGNER (arranged by Henk de Vlieger): Meistersinger: An Orchestral TributeEdo de Waart conducting the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.  WAGNER (arr. de Vlieger): Deux entr’actes tragiques. Otto Tausk conducting the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. Challenge Classics CC72326.

The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra performs the works of WagnerDutch composer Henk de Vlieger, who has also proved his prowess as an arranger of other people’s music many times over, enters the list of those who have transposed the music dramas of Richard Wagner to a purely symphonic scale — an illustrious company including, among others, Leopold Stokowski, Erich Leinsdorf and Lorin Maazel.  The Meistersinger condensation is a fifty-two-minute encapsulation of Wagner’s comic masterpiece and is faithful to the German master’s orchestral style.  De Waart (now Music Director of the Milwaukee Symphony), who has collaborated with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic on other Wagner syntheses over the years, shares in this affinity. 

Of more compelling interest, maybe because of their unfamiliarity, are the two Entr’actes, which de Vlieger put together from fragments.  The orchestral colors, for a standard “Beethovenian” orchestra minus the clarinets, recall the Wagner of Die Feen of 1834.  The first Entr’acte, probably dating from the early 1830s (about the same time as the vastly underrated Symphony in C), is about 52 measures long and is completely orchestrated.  De Vlieger has done a masterful job of finishing a work abandoned by its creator. 

The second Entr’acte, in a minor key and based on piano sketches, is more compelling and reminds one of Weber rather than Wagner.  Otto Tausk, a native Netherlander, conveys the spirit of the music more than ably and does not try to make it into something it is not.

More information about this CD may be found here.


LUIS DE FREITAS BRANCO: Symphony No. 4 (1944-1952). Vathek: Symphonic Poem in the form of variations on an Oriental Theme (1913). Alvaro Cassuto conducting the RTÉ (Irish Radio and Television) National Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.572624.

The RTE National Symphony Orchestra performs the works of Luis de Freitas BrancoPortuguese maestro Alvaro Cassuto continues his admirable series for Naxos of the music of his countryman, Luís de Freitas Branco (1890-1955), including his final symphony and the imposing Vathek Variations.  The pieces are almost forty years apart, the Symphony having been completed in 1952 (being some eight years in the making) and Vathek in 1913, when Freitas Branco was only 23. 

The Symphony opens with a plainchant-like unison figure in the winds, with piano open fifth string responses—reminiscent, in some ways, of Paul Hindemith.  In fact, the influence of Gregorian chant is constant throughout the work.  The main section of the first movement is quick to unfold.  Freitas Branco at sixty is not necessarily a different composer from Freitas Branco at twenty-three, but he has evolved into something more of a “romantic”.  He goes from this large symphonic structure of a first movement (in a deceptively simple three-part ABA form, with stunning climaxes at strategic points) to an equally compelling slow movement based on an ostinato, or repeated figure.  The Scherzo (Allegro vivace) is very nearly a throwback to the composer’s youth, but not quite; it starts out almost like a modernized Beethoven scherzo, leading to a fandango-like middle or trio section, and an abrupt ending.  The Scherzo is the slowest of the four movements. 

The Finale returns to what Mr. Cassuto (who wrote the liner notes himself) calls a spirit of “monumentality”.  It is an introduction and allegro which grows out of a ponderous, march-like theme.  This Finale, in contrast to the third movement, is the longest of the four — lasting slightly over a quarter-hour and using the brass section in a way that sounds, at least to this reviewer, like something of a cross between Bruckner and the late British composer George Lloyd. 

Vathek is a different piece.  Though finished in 1913, it was not performed until 1950—and, according to Cassuto (who gave the first complete performance in the early 1960s, in Lisbon), in somewhat expurgated form.  The variation that was omitted was No. 3 (Delight of the Eyes), which uses polychordal structures that almost anticipate the later work of William Schuman.  Though a shorter work than the Symphony, Vathek is in some ways a bigger work—not only because it is scored for a much larger orchestra but because of its dimensions.  Each of the five variations is an experience in itself, almost a complete piece.  The form of the piece is an Introduction, a presentation of the theme, a three-minute bridge piece which Freitas Branco called Prologue, the variations (with programmatic French titles) and then an Epilogue, longer than any of the variations.  Vathek was based on a French-language novel by the early nineteenth-century British writer William Beckford.  The Variations are meant to depict the Caliph Vathek’s magnificent palace and its beauties and amenities.  It is an outstanding example of musical exoticism.  It is a work, perhaps, that demands repeated hearings. 

Maestro Cassuto is a passionate and persuasive advocate of this music.  He is aided by a first-rate orchestra, the RTÉ National Symphony.  This is an unusual example, and a very fine one, of an interpreter putting himself completely at the service of the composer.

For more information on this very compelling disc, go here.