BRAGA SANTOS: Elegy to Vianna da Motta. Concerto in D for String Orchestra. Sinfonietta for String Orchestra Divertimento No. 2. Staccato Brillante.

by Walter Simmons



BRAGA SANTOS: Elegy to Vianna da Motta. Concerto in D for String Orchestra. Sinfonietta for String Orchestra. Divertimento No. 2. Staccato Brillante. Meir Minsky conducting Orquesta Classica do Porto. KOCH SCHWANN 3-1510-2 H1 [DDD]; 62:10. Produced by Andre Defossez and Yoko Kikuchi.

Joly Braga Santos 1924-1988) was one of the leading 20thcentury compositional voices of Portugal. A paucity of information about him in English-language sources prevents me from knowing the full extent of his output at the time of his relatively early death from a sudden stroke. However, I do know that he composed three operas, three ballets, six symphonies, and a variety of other orchestral, choral, and chamber music. As far as I know, this is the first compact disc to feature his music although a number of his works appeared on obscure European LPs (see Fanfare 8:3, pp. 139-40.

What I have gleaned from the dozen or so works I have heard and the accompanying program notes, is that Braga Santos’ music seems to fall into two distinct stylistic phases. The earlier one has been characterized by one Portuguese commentator as showing the influence of “Portuguese polyphony of the second Renaissance and the folklore of Alentejo.” To me, as I wrote in the review cited above, “these works exhibit the modally flavored melodic primacy, within an expansively Romantic context, found in the music of such composers as, say, Borodin, Respighi, Hanson, and Kodaly, Now, from the perspective of some twelve years later, it is Respighi and Kodaly that are most saliently brought to mind. “In addition,” I wrote, “he reveals a sense of Braga creative urgency that gives his music an easily recognizable personal profile. Its chief weaknesses are a conventionality of phraseology and lack of formal discipline that prevent the music from reaching the highest standards of modern romantic symphonic writing.” The second stylistic phase seems to date from the early 1960s and reveals a tighter, more severely neoclassical musical language. Though the later period is certainly more “up to date” and reveals more mature workmanship, it is the earlier music that is really engaging, because, with all its excesses and awkwardness, it reveals a truly distinctive voice.

This new compact disc is equally divided between the two periods. The earliest work is the Elegy to Vianna da Motta, written in memory of an important Portuguese pianist. It was this piece that evidently brought the 24-year-old composer. to national attention. It is a somber, 9-minute orchestral work that treats archaic melodic, contrapuntal, and harmonic elements with an opulence of sonority clearly derived from Respighi, but with an expressive conviction and intensity the absence of which is the Italian master’s greatest shortcoming.

The Concerto in D for String Orchestra was composed in 1951 and is typical of the composer’s other works from this period in its simple, rather obvious, construction, and its self-indulgent repetitiousness. It opens with a confident, straightforward statement that strongly suggests Kodaly, or, perhaps, Rozsa. At various points theConcerti Grossi of Bloch also come to mind, as does the Concerto Grosso No. 1 of Arnold Rosner (which, of course, came 20 years later) in the Concerto’s folk-dance-like rondo finale in quintuple meter. Yet despite its structural weaknesses and its reminiscences of other composers, this is authentic, sincerely heartfelt music that reveals a strong, fervent creative personality capable of some truly inspired moments. Perhaps this is not music to subject to ruthless critical scrutiny, but Braga Santos’ voice is too strong to dismiss. 

On the other hand, the Sinfonietta and the Divertimento No. 2 — each for string orchestra — can be discussed together, although 15 years separate their dates of composition. Both works speak in a generic European neoclassicism reminiscent of the Bartok of Music for S, P, C and the Honegger of the Second Symphony: sober, ruggedly energetic, and chromatic, at times achieving an eerie sense of mystery. Yet despite their well-tailored craftsmanship, in these works Braga Santos’ voice seems constrained and neutralized, embracing a far narrower and less interesting expressive range.

It is therefore remarkable that the remaining work represents something of a return to the earlier style. Staccato Brillante was the composer’s last work, completed three months before his death. The piece, an energetic toccata-like overture, unmistakably proclaims Braga Santos from the moment it begins, lunging forth with an intense melodic thrust. Its mere two-and-a-half minute duration leaves one wishing for more. 

Although stressed a bit in the highest ranges, the Classical Orchestra of Porto does an admirable job, under the direction of the Polish-Israeli conductor Meir Minsky, of representing Braga Santos’ works to the larger musical public. This is a composer whose music is worth pursuing.