Braunfels: Phantastische Erscheinungen, Serenade / Davies, Vienna Radio SO

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A popular composer in Germany prior to World War II, Walter Braunfels (1882-1954) will be best known to music lovers thanks to Decca's recording of his very beautiful opera The Birds. This release builds on that favorable impression, and then some. Phantastische Erscheinungen eines Themas von Hector Berlioz (Fantastic Appearances of a Theme by Hector Berlioz) is a giant set of variations on Mephistopheles' "Song of the Flea" from The Damnation of Faust. And if this fact alone isn't enough to whet your appetite, then I'm not sure what will. Structurally the work has something in common with Strauss' Don Quixote--on LSD. The orchestral technique also is quite similar, recognizably German school, with luscious writing for violins and horns, occasional outbursts of extreme virtuosity all around, and a discerning but minimal use of additional percussion.

However, it's clear that Braunfels has given a good deal of thought to both the composer and the source of his theme. There's a healthy touch of humor, real grotesquerie in the quicker movements (No. 11 and the finale particularly), and the woodwinds frequently have the chance to snap and chatter in a recognizably Berliozian manner. Braunfels also includes an absolutely terrifying funeral march (third movement), followed by something that approaches Korngold in melodious luxury. He composed 12 "Erscheinungen" in all, though this performance omits No. 9, which the booklet tells us was standard practice back when the work was played (though it strikes me as something of a pity to leave it out on a recording). They are genuinely delightful, one and all, and the better you know your Berlioz (and Tchaikovsky, and Strauss), the more fun you'll have.

Certainly at nearly 49 minutes, there's plenty of musical invention on display, sumptuously scored and very capably played by Dennis Russell Davies and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. Special credit has to go to the orchestra's comedians, the contrabassoon and tuba, who have a lot of work to do and who not only play extremely well, but who have a conductor who is not afraid to give them the prominence that they deserve. As a coupling, the Serenade is more than a make-weight filler. It's a very attractive piece that once again demonstrates Braunfels' skill in writing what is without question very beautiful music, obviously of its time and place, but without sounding quite like anyone else. Like the music of his contemporary Emil von Reznicek, which CPO is exploring with similar success, this is music that ought never to have vanished from the concert stage, and I can't recommend this powerfully recorded, evocative release highly enough. Wonderful! [1/3/2005]
--David Hurwitz,

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 999882-2

  • UPC: 761203988228

  • Label: CPO

  • Composer: Walter Braunfels

  • Conductor: Dennis Russell Davies

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra


  1. Phantastische Erscheinungen eines Themas von Hector Berlioz, Op. 25

    Composer: Walter Braunfels

    Ensemble: Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra

    Conductor: Dennis Russell Davies

  2. Serenade for Chamber Orchestra in Eb Major, Op. 20

    Composer: Walter Braunfels

    Ensemble: Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra

    Conductor: Dennis Russell Davies