Portugal

Portugal—Joly Braga Santos
What defines Marco Polo as a great label is that it does things like
record the complete symphonies of Portuguese composer Joly Braga
Santos (1924–1988), perhaps the finest Portuguese composer of the
20th century. The last thing I would have expected from Portugal is
a combination of Vaughan Williams and Sibelius, but that is what this
extraordinarily grand and sweeping music sounds like. In American
parlance, I would have to call him a Portuguese Howard Hanson. His
six symphonies—in marvelous performances directed by conductor
Alvaro Cassuto, with the Portuguese Symphony Orchestra and the
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra—attest to this.
Braga Santos wrote his first four symphonies while in his 20s. The
first three of these are astounding accomplishments for a youth (1 and 5
on 8.223879; 2 on 8.225216; 3 and 6 on 8.225087). Strangely enough, I
don’t hear any Iberian influences in these works, but I do hear, as mentioned
above, the pronounced, unmistakable impact of Sibelius and,
especially, Vaughan Williams. Braga Santos wrote on a large scale, with
long-lined melodies and an impressionistic sense of atmosphere. Much
of the music is bardic in utterance and heroic in cast. Cassuto gives
magnificent performances of the Fourth Symphony and the Symphonic
Variations (8.225233). Braga Santoswas a composer ofbig gestureswho
knew how to construct the architecture within which to contain them
so that they work to maximum effect. His mission, he said, was ‘‘to
react against the predominant tendency of the generation that preceded
me to reject monumentalism in music’’. He succeeded in both these
works. The Variations reflect not only the influence of Sibelius; parts
of it could pass as a Portuguese La Mer. After the Fourth Symphony,
he fell under the spell of teachers who indoctrinated him in the joyless
school of atonality, as heard in these recordings of his Fifth and Sixth
Symphonies, but by all means revel in his youthful inspirations and then proceed from there. Another Marco Polo CD (8.225186) gives us some of Braga Santos’
orchestral music for strings: Concerto for Strings <> in D; Sinfonietta for
Strings; Variations Concertantes for Strings and Harp; and Concerto for
Violin, Cello, Strings, and Harp. The first of these inhabits the same
world as Vaughan Williams’ great stringworks. Its Adagio is a gorgeous,
mesmerizing lament that was played at Braga Santos’ funeral Mass. The
other works are from his later, more harmonically acerbic period, but
they too work in their own deliberately disquieting way Alvaro Cas2194
suto delivers beautiful performances with the Northern Sinfonia.
AnotherMarco Polo disc (8.225271) gives us a further look at his bifurcated
style. The very beautiful Nocturno for Strings (1944) is a sweetly
dolorous work, very much in the Vaughan Williams’ vein and just as
fine as that master’s string works. The Sinfonietta No. 1 also leans in
that direction but is also one of Braga Santos’ few works infused with
Portuguese folk music. It is counterpoised with the eerie Sinfonietta
No. 2 and the Cello Concerto from his later period. All are beautifully
2195 delivered by the Algarve Orchestra under conductor Alvaro Cassuto.
A Naxos release includes orchestral pieces, such as the Symphonic
Overture No. 3, a ballet, titled Alfama, Three Symphonic Sketches, and
other works, magnificently played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra,
under Alvaro Cassuto. The Overture, in particular, is gloriously
melodic and has real sweep to it. It could almost pass for the kind of
open-hearted, prairie-flavored music being written in the United States
at the time. In fact, the main theme of the overture is uncannily like
the music of American composer Peter Schickele in its main melody.
This is not to say that Braga Santos’ music sounds derivative, but only
2196 that great minds think alike.

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