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Classical Lost and Found: Branco's Laudable But Overlooked Sonatas

Portugal's Bom Jesus church.

Francophile romantics, and fans of violin sonatas, will discover a pleasant surprise in this new album of music by Luis de Freitas Branco, a Portuguese composer, teacher, musicologist and critic.

At age sixteen, Branco studied in Lisbon with Belgian organist-composer Désiré Pâque, who introduced him to Cesar Franck's music. And it must have made a great impression on the young composer if his four-movement first violin sonata of 1907 is any indication.

More specifically, the opening andantino begins with a lilting theme that sounds very much like a first cousin to the opening allegretto that begins Franck's own beloved violin sonata. But the following development and recapitulation are of such sophistication it's hard to believe they came from a seventeen-year-old.

The rhythmically jittery allegretto has Iberian as well as Gallic roots, while the highly chromatic adagio is all Branco. The final allegro begins with a bold theme that undergoes an animated development full of bravura passages. The music then transitions into a subdued episode with Franckian cyclic references to previous ideas. A stirring climax follows putting the cork in a French bottle of Portuguese wine.

The second violin sonata (from 1938) is much more progressive, with sweeping material of late romantic temperament in the opening allegretto. The infectious vivace has twitchy outer sections surrounding a sobbing melody, while the andantino is a moving da capo aria for the violin.

An intriguing bipolar theme that soars skywards, only to fall back to earth, dominates the final allegro. This is an inventive sonata form movement with a peremptory coda ending a work, which arguably ranks with the best chamber music of the period.

The disc closes with an encore of sorts in the form of Branco's Prelude for Violin and piano from 1910. French impressionism holds sway here, which supports Branco having once declared that Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande was the most important event in his artistic development.

Our soloists in these recordings (the only ones available of this music) are Portuguese violinist Carlos Damas and Polish pianist Anna Tomasik. They make a sensitive and enthusiastic case for this rarely heard but superbly crafted chamber music.

Bob McQuiston revels in under-the-radar repertoire at his website Classical Lost and Found.

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Bob McQuiston