SANTOS:  Symphonic Variations on a Popular Song from the Alentejo.  Symphony No. 4
National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland/Álvaro Cassuto, cond.
MARCO POLO 8.225233 (F) (DDD) TT:  67:53

Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988) is the leading Portuguese symphonist of the 20th Century. This is the first time I've heard any of his music and I am hooked. After studies in violin and composition at the Lisbon Conservatory Santos became a disciple of Luis de Freitas Branco, the previous generation's leading native Portuguese composer  The first four of Santos' six symphonies were written from 1946-1951 after which he studied conducting with Hermann Scherchen and composition with Virgilio Mortari; apparently his works after 1960 show this modern influence, which surely isn't evident in the two works on this CD. Symphonic Variations was composed in 1951. After a slow introduction one hears the flute playing the popular song which then is treated to a series of imaginative variations. Santos was a master orchestrator and is not afraid to let loose with massive brass and percussion outbursts, all to telling effect. 

Symphony No. 4 is the longest (53:05) and grandest of the four written up to that time. There are traces of Bruckner and Sibelius—and Howard Hanson as well.  The second movement is a powerful funeral march reaching a massive climax. The scherzo (Allegro tranquillo) has big tunes with hovering influence of Sibelius always present.  When the allegro con brio begins 2:25 into the final movement with a bold violin theme punctuated by trumpets it's easy to imagine a triumphant interlude in a quality Western film epic—and I do not mean this in any negative sense. The last movement ends with a powerful chorale played by heavy brass underlined by throbbing timpani.  The composer felt that perhaps this should be a choral finale and in one performance superimposed a four-part mixed chorus during the final section. Conductor Álvaro Cassuto, who wrote the fine CD notes, feels the chorus is not needed and it is not used in this recording.

The National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, a virtuoso ensemble that already has recorded all of Sir Malcolm Arnold's symphonies for Naxos, again shows their expertise under Portuguese conductor Cassuto whose enthusiasm for this music is ever apparent. The sound, too (produced and engineered by Tim Handley), is state-of-the-art.  Highly recommended, and I'm looking forward to hearing more music of this unjustly neglected composer. This is one of the treasures in the Klaus Heymann catalog.

R.E.B. (December 2002)