BRAGA SANTOS Nocturno. Divertimento No. 1. Divertimento No. 2. Cello Concerto1. Staccato Brilhante • Álvaro Cassuto, cond; Algarve Orchestra; Jan Bastiaan Neven (vc)1 • MARCO POLO 8.225271 (66:30)
This is the sixth release in Marco Polo’s survey of the orchestral music of Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988), who is proving to be Portugal’s most distinguished composer. A glance at the reviews of previous releases in the series (see Fanfare 20:1 for Paul Snook’s comments [listed incorrectly under Santos], 22:3 for Martin Anderson’s, 26:6 for Barry Brenesal’s, and 20:2, 22:3, 25:1, 25:5, and 26:6 [or my website at www.Walter-Simmons.com] for my own) and at the comments of “just plain folks” that can be found on Amazon.com will give ample evidence of the remarkable appeal of Braga Santos’s music. By giving this composer international exposure, Marco Polo continues to reveal to the musical public the irrelevance and obsolescence of the “great performers” circuit and the stagnant repertoire on which it feeds. I can assure those listeners who have enjoyed the five previous installments of this series that they are sure to find at least some of the offerings on this new release of comparable merit.
As I have written in the past, Braga Santos’s music can be subdivided into two distinct style-periods—the first, lasting until around 1960, the second beginning several years later, after a period of reflection during which he suspended creative activity. The music from the prolific first period is characterized by a distinctive, instantly recognizable melodic thrust—modal and largely diatonic within a consonant harmonic context. While these works also display some weaknesses stemming from the straightforward simplicity of their construction, many listeners are not bothered by such matters, while others may feel—as I do—that the distinctive appeal of this music outweighs shortcomings that often amount to little more than an excess of fervor. Listeners who enjoy the tone poems of Respighi, the symphonies of Howard Hanson, and/or the filmscores of Miklós Rózsa are very likely to appreciate the early music of Braga Santos. However, the music of his second style-period tends to be tighter, with a more severely Neo-Classical language. Though this later music may display more polish and sophistication, much of it is rather routine in impact, 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 [his] musical style … to study and to embrace the ‘modern’ music of his time, …”
The earliest piece on this new release is a Nocturne for strings, written when the composer was twenty. It is an impassioned lament of just seven minutes duration, clearly anticipating in style and tone the respective slow movements of his first four symphonies.
The two works entitled “Divertimento” avoid the light-hearted frivolity usually associated with the term, even as they differ considerably from each other; “Sinfonietta” might have been a more suitable appellation (used, in fact, for piece composed in 1963). Divertimento No. 1 dates from 1959-61, and seems like something of a transitional work. Not at all insubstantial, it opens with the sort of wide-arching melodic line characteristic of Braga Santos’s earlier music, but utilizes a somewhat harsher, more dissonant harmonic language. Thematic material is in generous supply, most of it tinged with the melos of folk music. The scherzo-like second movement features a repeated-16th-note pattern found in other works as well. At little more than 20 minutes, it is much tighter and more concise than the early symphonies, having curtailed much of the grandiosity, prolixity, and repetition that can weigh those works down.
Divertimento No. 2 was composed 17 years later, in 1978. For strings only, and some 13 minutes in duration, it is barely recognizable as a work of the same composer. Typical of Braga Santos’s “late” period, it sounds like a generic example of 1940s Central European modernism (e.g. Bartók, Honegger, Martin—the sort of piece that might have been written for Paul Sacher’s Basel Chamber Orchestra). While not objectionable in any way, it sacrifices the powerful authenticity of the earlier music for a veneer of sophistication.
However, by 1987, when he composed his Cello Concerto, Braga Santos had developed this cooler, more angular language into a more personal medium of expression. Along the lines of a “Sinfonia Concertante,” rather than a virtuoso vehicle, the Concerto comprises three movements, each of which is subdivided into distinct sections. Although there are some motoric passages, it pursues a largely probing, deeply introspective course within an austere, chromatic, nearly atonal harmonic language. While such rumination may at times seem like aimless meandering, it becomes more clearly focused in the third movement, as a more heartfelt quasi-romantic lyricism emerges. Compared with the earlier music, this late concerto requires more patience and concentration, revealing its expressive content more gradually.
Staccato Brilhante was Braga Santos’s last work, composed in 1988 at the request of conductor Cassuto, who wanted a piece that might serve as either a concert-opener or an encore. Based on the sort of repeated-16th-note pattern mentioned above, it is truly sensational, with the soaring lyricism and emotional immediacy of the composer’s earlier style, but without any of the grandiosity. In truth, one’s only complaint is that its 2½ -minute duration leaves one deprived and wishing for more.
The Algarve Orchestra is a young ensemble, formed in 2002 to serve the musical needs of Portugal’s southern coast. Its remarkable degree of polish and proficiency once again demonstrates the extraordinary prowess displayed by orchestras today in some of the most remote (and culturally underdeveloped, one might erroneously presume) corners of the world. Jan Bastiaan Neven, the orchestra’s principal cellist, fulfills the solo role in the Concerto with considerable artistry. Both the Divertimento No. 2 and the Staccato Brilhante were included on an all-Braga Santos disc issued by Koch-Schwann (3-1510-2) in 1994. That release featured the Classical Orchestra of Oporto, conducted by Meir Minsky, in performances that lacked some of the incisiveness found in these new readings. One can only hope that Marco Polo will be motivated by the success of their Braga Santos cycle to continue introducing us to the works of this rewarding composer.