BRAGA SANTOS: Concerto in D for Strings (1951); Sinfonietta for Strings(1963); Variations Concertantes (1967); Double Concerto (1968) · Álvaro Cassuto, cond; Northern Sinfonia; Sue Blair (hp); Bradley Creswick (vn); Alexander Somov (vc)· MARCO POLO 8.225186 (67:51)
Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988) increasingly seems to be emerging as perhaps Portugal’s greatest composer. Lest this be considered faint praise, I would assert further that he is potentially one of the foremost composers of symphonic music active in 20th-century Europe — “potentially,” because among the 65 or so works he seems to have to his credit, I am familiar with fewer than 20. And though I have yet to encounter anything that might be termed a “masterpiece,” I am sufficiently intrigued that I pounce eagerly and hopefully on each new recording that appears. Furthermore, I am not alone in my enthusiasm. Despite my zeal, those Fanfarecolleagues who have also discussed Braga Santos seem more wholehearted in their praise than I (see Paul Snook’s comments in 20:1 [under Santos], and Martin Anderson’s in 22:3; my own comments on previous Braga Santos releases can be found in 20:2, 22:3, and 25:1, or on my website at www.Walter-Simmons.com).
This is the fourth release in Marco Polo’s exploration of Braga Santos’s music. The previous releases have included five of his six symphonies (No. 4 — the best, in my opinion — still awaits release). I have included the dates of composition in the headnote of this review because they convey important information to those familiar with this music. From the mid 1950s to the early 1960s Braga Santos was creatively silent. During that time he underwent a major aesthetic upheaval, the outcome of which was a profound stylistic transformation. The earlier music (which includes four of the symphonies) is straightforwardly tonal — or, more precisely, modal-conventional in form, and rather simplistic in its phraseology and syntax, with a richly expansive, post-romantic aesthetic orientation. The later music exemplifies a more sophisticated neo-classical approach. The dilemma is this: Despite its undeniable weaknesses, the early music has tremendous personality, with an infectious lyricism and considerable emotional power. Though listening to it triggers a stream of reminiscences of other composers who have ventured through similar stylistic territory — Kodály and Rózsa, Respighi, Bloch, Vaughan Williams, Rosner — once one has heard a few pieces from Braga Santos’s early period, his musical identity is unmistakable — and irresistible. On the other hand, the later music embraces a cosmopolitan neo-classical language rooted in the chromaticism of Bartók’s Music for SPC and, say, the Honegger Second, with even a touch of William Schuman’s Fifth. Now these three are all fine pieces, but Braga Santos’s adaptation of their language lacks a personality of its own, and hence is far less interesting, despite its polished craftsmanship. What I don’t know is whether his approach ever changed again. I raise this because the latest work of his with which I am familiar — a brief Staccato Brilhante composed three months before his death — suggests a partial return to the distinctive language of his earlier music, but executed with more skill and maturity.
If you’ve read this far, you know where the new Marco Polo release fits in. Let me mention that a 1994 all-Braga Santos release from Koch-Schwann (3-1510-2) features both the Concerto in D and the Sinfonietta found on the CD at hand, along with the aforementioned Staccato Brilhante and two other pieces, performed by the Classical Orchestra of Oporto, led by the Polish-Israeli conductor Meir Minsky. Álvaro Cassuto, who conducts the Marco Polo recordings, is a Portuguese conductor who seems to be Braga Santos’s chief advocate. The performances on both discs are comparably “adequate” — OK, but with plenty of room for greater finesse, especially in the Concerto in D. The English performance of the Variations Concertantes, however, is quite good — vigorous, incisive, and polished-for some reason, considerably better than the other renditions offered here.
The foregoing having been said, perhaps there is little need for further individual comments. The Concerto in D is easy to patronize, but hard to forget, in spite of itself. As indicated, the remaining three works are far less interesting. The 18-minute Sinfonietta is scored for twelve solo strings. Variations Concertantes is a 10-minute piece for strings and harp. The full-length Double Concerto features violin and cello plus strings and harp, and follows a slow-fast-slow format.
Let’s hope that the gaps in the Braga Santos discography will be filled in time. In addition to the Fourth Symphony, there are three operas, three orchestral overtures, some large choral works, a piano concerto, a cello concerto, two string quartets, a sextet, and a piano trio. There may be some really great music among them!