BRAGA SANTOS Symphony No. 4. Symphonic Variations

BRAGA SANTOS Symphony No. 4. Symphonic Variations · Álvaro Cassuto, cond; NSO of Ireland · MARCO POLO 8.225233 (67:53)

This new release concludes Marco Polo’s survey of the six symphonies of Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988), arguably Portugal’s greatest composer. The previous releases in the series and other Braga Santos recordings have been received with enthusiastic praise in these pages (see Paul Snook’s comments in 20:1 [listed incorrectly under Santos], and Martin Anderson’s in 22:3; my own reactions can be found in 20:2, 22:3, 25:1, 25:5, or on my website at The Fourth Symphony is perhaps the most thrilling and satisfying of the symphonies, making this release indispensable for those who have enjoyed the previous issues, and the best place to start for those who have yet to discover this composer’s work.

In reviewing a great deal of music from the past hundred years, I frequently find myself praising a composer’s authentic musicality, craftsmanship, and taste, while nevertheless finding something lacking, which I usually characterize as “melodic focus,” or “personal perspective,” or “expressive purpose.” Anyone who has difficulty finding meaning in those vague phrases should listen to Braga Santos, because what he has—in abundance—is what I am talking about, although his craftsmanship and taste may sometimes lack sophistication and polish.

To summarize the most salient points about Braga Santos: His works can be subdivided into two distinct style-periods—the first, lasting until the mid 1950s, the second beginning during the early 1960s, after a period of reflection during which he suspended creative activity. The music from the prolific first period, to which both works presented here belong, is characterized by a distinctive, instantly recognizable melodic thrust—modal and largely diatonic within a consonant harmonic context. The chief weaknesses of these works involve their utter simplicity of construction: formal structures are obvious in their clarity, phraseology is overly symmetrical and often prolonged by excessive reliance on melodic sequences, energy is generated too often via rhythmic ostinati, and the music often succumbs to passages of blatant grandiosity. But many listeners are not bothered by such matters, and others may feel—as I do—that the extraordinary appeal of this music outweighs its weaknesses to a significant extent. Another factor that some may find a virtue and others a weakness is that these early symphonies—all four composed between 1946 and 1950—are extremely similar to each other. Therefore I can pretty well guarantee that if you enjoyed Symphonies 1, 2, or 3, then you will feel similarly about this one. Furthermore, I would go so far as to say that if you like the tone poems of Respighi, the symphonies of Howard Hanson, and/or the filmscores of Miklós Rózsa, you are very likely to appreciate the early music of Braga Santos. However, after 1960 the composer turned to a tighter, more severely Neo-Classical musical language. Though this later music may display more polish and sophistication, it is rather ordinary, lacking the remarkable flair and personality of the earlier music. In the words of conductor Álvaro Cassuto, probably the composer’s foremost advocate, “Personally, I cannot help feeling that it was a shame that Braga Santos interrupted the natural evolution of the musical style he had adopted from his mentor Luis de Freitas Branco … to study and to embrace the ‘modern’ music of his time, …”

At 53 minutes, the Fourth Symphony is Braga Santos’s longest. It opens with a slow, somber introduction of great portent, presenting a simple three-note motif that will generate virtually the entire work. As it gradually unfolds, the introduction suggests the rich, Neo-Romantic character of the music to follow. The movement proceeds with a driving Allegro con fuoco, in unabashedly blatant sonata-allegro form,that spins out a series of long, fluidly soaring melodic lines so distinctive that they can be regarded as the composer’s trademark. The music presses forward with an urgency and ardor that will be irresistible and unforgettable to listeners receptive to this kind of expression.

The slow movement is framed by a solemn, dirge-like prelude and postlude. In between, a gorgeously mournful melody builds to an impassioned climax, followed by a modal, chant-like melody harmonized to evoke liturgical associations.

The scherzo, unmistakably reminiscent of Sibelius,is luxuriant in texture and orchestration. The trio is based on an infectious folk-like melody, strongly modal in character.

The finale is the longest and weakest movement of the work, as is frequently the case in symphonies that begin powerfully and aim for monumental perorations. A slow introduction is followed by a vigorous Allegro that calls Elmer Bernstein’s “Western” mode to mind. The movement culminates in what the composer called a “Hymn to Youth,” a chorale that strives toward a level of grandiloquence that will cause most listeners to cringe a bit. Nevertheless, those who can tolerate this sort of thing—and you know who you are—will not be disappointed.

Symphonic Variations on a Popular Song from the Alentejo is a congenial and gratifying filler. (The Alentejo is a rural region in the south of Portugal.) Composed in 1951, this substantial, 15-minute work comprises a diversely characterized, richly harmonized, and luxuriantly orchestrated set of  variations that frequently evoke paradoxical reminiscences of Sibelius.

And, speaking of paradox, Marco Polo’s way of juxtaposing performing organizations of one geographical location with repertoire from another often raises one’s eyebrows. In this case, the Irish musicians approach this Portuguese music with requisite gusto and polish.

Now that we have the symphonies, what about some more Braga Santos? There are several operas, cantatas, a piano concerto, a cello concerto, a double concerto, two string quartets, a sextet, a piano trio, and .… I don’t know any of this music, but I’m curious, and I suspect others will be too, once they have digested what is available.