by Walter Simmons
BRAGA SANTOS Alfama (Ballet Suite). Elegy in Memory of Vianna da Motta. Symphonic Overture No. 3. Three Symphonic Sketches. Variations for Orchestra ● Álvaro Cassuto, cond; Royal Scottish National Orchestra ● NAXOS 8.572815 (72:36)
I have often argued that there are two “worlds” of classical music: the world of celebrity soloists and conductors who trot around the globe, performing a limited roster of works from the past, with a variety of established ensembles, wherever they go; and the world of repertoire exploration, accessible largely via recordings, and featuring the music of hundreds of different composers of all time periods. These two “worlds” appear gradually to be growing farther apart, as the former attempts to address diminishing attendance and financial support by further simplifying its programming, and the latter seeks ever more novelties to keep the “explorers” interested. No composer illustrates this dichotomy better than the Portuguese Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988). It is difficult not to compare Braga Santos with the American composer Nicolas Flagello. They were nearly exact contemporaries and the creative lives of both came to an end prematurely. Also, both died before their music had achieved enough exposure for it to reach its natural audience. But most of all, both composed music whose emotional power is irresistible and unequivocal. Over the course of the past decade Naxos and its associated label Marco Polo have introduced to the international marketplace all six of Braga Santos’s symphonies, along with a generous variety of ancillary works. If you read my reviews of these recordings, those of my Fanfare colleagues, the comments of consumers posted on Amazon.com, along with those of various other Internet bloggers and commentators, you will discover a preponderance of overwhelmingly positive reactions. But if you have ever heard a work of his performed in concert by an American ensemble, I invite you to write to me c/o this magazine and let me know. I certainly have not.
Those readers who have enjoyed the prior Braga Santos releases will not need much prodding to seek out this latest one. However, for those yet to encounter his music, this is probably not the best place to start. (I would advise those readers to start by listening to one of his first four symphonies; my personal favorite is No. 4, but any of them will do. If you like what you hear, then Braga Santos is for you; if not, then what I am writing may not apply to you.) I might also add that if you appreciate the music of, say, Respighi and Howard Hanson, I can pretty well guarantee that the music of Braga Santos will appeal to you. The reason that I can make such statements is that Braga Santos had a very distinctive and consistent musical personality—at least up until the early 1960s, when he sought to modernize his language. But many of the elements in his earlier works find their way into these later pieces—at least enough to keep his admirers interested. This is music that would appeal to thousands of people if they knew it existed. In fact, I would love to be present were a live performance to take place, just to observe the audience reaction.
The selections offered here range across much of Braga Santos’s composing career. The earliest is the Elegy in Memory of Vianna da Motta, composed in 1948. This is a beautiful, heartfelt threnody inspired by the death of a well-known Portuguese pianist. There is an exotic aspect suggestive of antiquity, as filtered through a ripe, intensely post-romantic sensibility, somewhat along the lines of Respighi.
Symphonic Overture No. 3 dates from 1954, just a few years after the Symphony No. 4. It is instantly recognizable as Braga Santos, with its soaring, long-breathed melodies, although it is perhaps somewhat divertimento-like—a little lighter in tone and simpler in substance than his early symphonies. It also displays some of the weaknesses of the composer’s early style, especially a certain predictability of phraseology. But this is a weakness that those who appreciate Braga Santos are able to overlook. One comes away from this piece wondering about Symphonic Overtures Nos. 1 and 2.
The featured item on this release—and the most problematical one—is the music for a ballet entitled Alfama, written in 1956. Conductor, annotator, and Braga Santos advocate Álvaro Cassuto explains that the composer wrote this music in haste and for purely monetary reasons. He had no intention of preserving it for posterity. When Cassuto discovered the score, he found some of the music to be of legitimate interest, and decided to fashion a 24-minute concert suite from the material. Again the composer’s identity is instantly identifiable. After a truly beautiful introduction, the ensuing music is simple, folklike, and unpretentious, with oom-pah accompaniments and the like. Reminiscent at times of Grieg’s Peer Gynt incidental music, the suite is pleasantly diverting. But the appearance of a piece like this raises the question once more of whether a composer’s decision not to have some of his music performed, published, or recorded must be observed. I am sure that Cassuto’s intentions are honorable, but the composer certainly had his reasons for “disowning” this music. Does anyone have the right to violate that decision? The reason that this is complicated is that we can all probably think of pieces regarding which the composer’s wishes would have deprived us of some wonderfully rewarding music. (The piece that immediately comes to my mind is Samuel Barber’s Second Symphony. I would hate to deny existence to this largely satisfying work.) One might argue that such pieces should be available for study by scholars, but not for performance. The trouble with that solution is that if there is any interest in a composer, music that is extant typically finds its way onto recordings or concert programs regardless of the intentions of those assigned to safeguard such matters. As for Alfama, it would seem that making available the dozens of compositions on Braga Santos’s worklist as yet undocumented on recording is a far higher priority than resuscitating music deemed inferior by its composer.
Symphonic Sketches of 1962 reveals the composer moving from his familiar modal post-romanticism to a language that is more chromatic and dissonant. The phraseology of the music is also more tightly controlled, so that the earlier tendency to belabor the obvious is curtailed. The composer’s identity is still discernible; the music is still tonal in a style that I would classify as “neo-romantic.” The three sketches, averaging less than four minutes each, are highly evocative mood-pieces that could serve as effective background music, although they are fully developed, autonomous entities. The first is suspenseful, the second ominous and threatening, and the third militant and muscular. Schoenberg’s Five Pieces, Op. 16 are called to mind—with regard to their expressive intent, if not their actual language. The third piece ends rather peculiarly, with what sounds like an added major-sixth chord that seems quite out of character with what precedes it.
Braga Santos composed Variations for Orchestra in 1976, several years after he had finished his six symphonies. It is one of the most artistically successful works I have heard from his “mature” style-period, in which he attempted to incorporate into his language more recent compositional techniques. It is rather amusing to see the later style described in program notes as embracing the most innovative developments in composition, as were pursued at Darmstadt—amusing because there is little in these Variations that is any more “modernistic” than a work like Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin (early 1920s). Like the Symphonic Sketches, this is a music of mood-states rather than melodic development, with massive gestures, and highly chromatic ideas that verge on atonality. But it is always expressive and communicative, resulting in a work that is thoroughly satisfying and gratifying.
As noted earlier, Álvaro Cassuto is deeply familiar with Braga Santos’s music, and has become its most eloquent champion. Here he leads the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in performances that are proficient and wholly sympathetic, capturing the spirit of the music with enthusiasm. I strongly urge Naxos to continue to bring to light the creative fruits of this fascinating, inspiring, and long-overlooked figure.