BRAGA SANTOS: Symphonic Overture No. 3 (1954). Elegy in Memory of Vianna da Mota (1948). Alfama Ballet Suite (arr. Cassuto) (1956). Variations for Orchestra (1976). Three Symphonic Sketches (1962).
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Álvaro Cassuto.
Naxos 8.572815 TT: 72:36

Solid. Beyond Renaissance composers like Manuel Cardoso, Duarte Lobo, and King John (in a line of musical Portuguese kings), I know very little Portuguese music. A few years ago, I heard a couple of discs featuring music by the 20th-century Luis de Freitas Branco, influenced by Strauss and Debussy, but the music came across as so bland and genteel that it didn't encourage me to look further. Now this disc has come my way, and I have the itch to explore again.

Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988) studied with Freitas Branco, and his early works reflect his teacher's influence. In the Forties, however, he began to move away, combining an interest in Renaissance polyphony with an invented folklore, analogous to Ralph Vaughan Williams in England and Bohuslav Martinu from Czechoslovakia. I think Manuel de Falla and Ottorino Respighi also come into the mix. That is, Braga Santos doesn't usually directly quote Portuguese folk tunes, but the tunes influence the shape of his themes. His interest in the Renaissance has little to do with antiquarianism but shapes his textures. We see many of these traits in the Symphonic Overture No. 3, a large sonata movement on mainly two ideas, each with a substantial exposition and development. I know very little folk music -- probably none -- from Portugal, so the movement of the music reminds me, at any rate, of Falla, without the characteristic Spanish dances. The orchestra both flexes its muscles and scintillates.

The elegy for Portuguese piano virtuoso Vianna da Motta, written in the Forties, shows more of Freitas Branco's influence, although the music cuts a lot deeper. In A-B-A form, it begins with a chromatic idea treated polyphonically, in the style of a 16th-century motet, and moves to a modal theme reminiscent of plainchant. The modal section builds and builds -- a little like Respighi's "Appian Way" from The Pines of Rome, although with a more profound emotional appeal than Respighi's cinematic panorama. However, it seems clear to me that Braga Santos has learned from Respighi's example as an orchestrator, although he scores leaner.

The composer apparently thought little of his Alfama, written mainly for the money he and his new wife needed to set up their household. However, composers notoriously misjudge their work. Tchaikovsky, for example, denigrated his Nutcracker ballet. Richard Strauss thought his Schlagobers, a full-scale ballet which has never found a repertory toehold, would make him a ton of money. To create this suite, conductor Cassuto admits to having washed the score's face, cutting excessive repetitions and ministering where he thought necessary, but it still has Braga Santos at the base. I suspect the composer disparaged its relative simplicity. As the old hymn reminds us, however, it's a gift to be simple. The work brings to my mind Joaquin Rodrigo's lighter work: sprightly tunes, brightly scored. A suite of gems.

In the late Fifties, Braga Santos began to build a more dissonant, though still tonal idiom. I would compare the change to that between Vaughan Williams's "London" Symphony and his No. 4. Portuguese music, under the control of a right-wing state, regarded modern music with hostility. Not until the Sixties did postwar tendencies begin to creep into composers' work, mainly from those who studied in Darmstadt. While influenced by these currents, Braga Santos never became an avant-gardiste. The Three Symphonic Sketches consist of a central slow movement sandwiched between two fast ones. The first movement strides angrily. The second broods and weeps. Cassuto well describes the finale as "orgiastic." In a way, the music harkens back to the barbarism of the Twenties, but in a very concentrated way. The three movements all together run slightly less than eleven minutes, yet they don't seem thin or incomplete. It's like taking in a very hearty soup.

Around the death of Antonio Salazar in 1970 and the dissolution of his dictatorship in 1974, official Portuguese musical life opened up, and postwar techniques began to appear in public venues. Braga Santos became even more interested in new musical trends, as shown by the Variations of 1976. I find the score very difficult to describe, since it seems more complicated than a variation set. Rather than variations on a theme, I hear instead at least five disjoint ideas, all quite memorable, transforming throughout. Orchestration serves both expressive and structural functions. Beyond all this, however, the work follows a powerful emotional arc, beginning in ambiguity and darkness and ending in relative light and security. Indeed, the final section has little to do with Darmstadt at all.

Composer-conductor Álvaro Cassuto obviously knows these scores well and has won at least one convert to Braga Santos in particular and perhaps to contemporary Portuguese music in general.

S.G.S. (June 2013)