Luis de Freitas Branco was, together with Joly Braga Santos, one of the leading figures in 20th century Portuguese classical music, and his music was an obvious choice for Naxos/Marco Polo after their at least artistically immensely successful Braga Santos series. Though only the Scherzo Fantastique is, as far as I can tell, the only work not previously recorded, Freitas Branco’s music is not exactly easy to get ahold of, so the series is very welcome. That said, I don’t think the disc at hand is particularly representative – on the other hand, the works here are all outward-going and accessible, colorful and buoyant, and possibly even more so than many of his later works (not that these are particularly “difficult” either).
The aforementioned Scherzo Fantastique, however, is not a reason to obtain this disc. Composed when the composer was 17, it does sport some local color and certainly displays some compositional skill, but it is a long shot from being great music. The first symphony is a different matter, however. Composed in 1924, it is a post-romantic work, relatively easy on the ear, and owes a great deal to the Flemish and French tradition after César Franck, though with plenty of color and somewhat more forward-looking harmonies – particularly “Portuguese” it isn’t (as far as I can tell), apart from the fact that those familiar with the music of Braga Santos (and you should be) would probably hear a certain similarity in phrasing and melodic material. No, it is not a lost masterpiece, and there are places where the composer reverts to note-spinning, but there are certainly plenty of good ideas as well, and overall I am happy to have made the encounter.
The Suite Allenteja no. 1 is richly colorful and catchy, hardly profound but very appealing. And as oppose to the other works, the music here is firmly anchored in Portuguese folk music and folklore – though it is a bit unclear to me whether the tunes are Freitas Branco’s own or real folktunes; they’re at least appealing and memorable. The RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra plays with plenty of color and energy and spirit under Álvaro Cassuto, though some of the textures could ideally have been a little more opulent. In any case, the sound is good, and overall this is a very welcome release.