- Phantastische Erscheinungen eines Themas von Hector Berlioz, Op. 25 ("Fantastic Appearances of a Theme by Hector Berlioz")
- Serenade, Op. 20
If the name of German composer Walter Braunfels is known at all today, it is through the revival of his 1920 opera "Die Vogel," issued in 1996 in a performance led by Lothar Zagrosek in Decca's now defunct Entarte Musik series. Conductor Dennis Russell Davies here returns with a sampling of Braunfels' orchestral music in a CPO offering with the Radio Symphonieochester Wien, Braunfels: Phantastische Erscheinungen. The title work is an expansive and rather long set of 12 variations on a theme of Hector Berlioz and support is provided by the early "Serenade, Op. 20," a work dating from 1910. Braunfels' style is typically evaluated as being in the mode of "expanded tonality," but these works, both of which date from before 1920, are in a securely post-Romantic idiom. Additionally, Braunfels' music is conservative even in comparison with Richard Strauss, with certain sections replicating the sound of Wagner's orchestral music with no sense of parody or morphology -- just straight imitation. It is pleasant music, but familiarity breeds contempt, and these pieces sound familiar without feeling particularly ingratiating -- while Braunfels is confident as an orchestrator and in the thematic flow of his designs, in emotional terms the listener is kept at an arm's length. Structurally some of flaws in these pieces result from the youthfulness of the composer; in the "Ruhig" movement, a long development passage á la "Tristan und Isolde" spins itself forward for several minutes before launching awkwardly into a restatement of the big tune that opens the movement, a seamy detail that will feel like a rip-off to some listeners. During the "Gemessen" movement in "Phantastische Erscheinungen," perhaps meant to represent a thunderstorm, one will be waiting for Flash Gordon to come around the corner, ray pistol at the ready. At this phase in his development, Braunfels sounds like the young Erich Wolfgang Korngold, but not as good, and far more weighed down by the example of the "Master of Bayreuth" than his younger contemporary. Comparatively "Die Vogel" is more interesting and mature as a musical statement, and supports the idea of Braunfels' significance as a composer with considerably less effort than Braunfels: Phantastische Erscheinungen. Dennis Russell Davies and the Radio Symphonieochester Wien play these pieces with efficiency, but not with much character. The recording, made by the ORF, is good but somewhat distant and equally as unremarkable as Braunfels' music.