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
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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)