BRAGA SANTOS: Symphonies: No. 1; No. 5, “Virtus Lusitaniae”

BRAGA SANTOS Symphonies: No. 1; No. 5, “Virtus Lusitaniae” – Álvaro Cassuto, cond; Portuguese SO – MARCO POLO 8.223879 (67:16)

Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988) is probably the most important Portuguese composer of his generation. I have been following his work for some time, as the compositions I have encountered indicate an authentic and distinctive musical voice. Although none of the twelve pieces familiar to me (amounting to less than a fifth of his output) impresses me as a masterpiece, they all point to an urgent creative impetus with something serious and important to say, leaving me with the feeling that I may have yet to encounter his most important work. For more specific observations about Braga Santos’s other compositions, I direct the reader to Fanfare 20:2 for my review of works for string orchestra on a Koch-Schwann disc, as well as to 20:1 for Paul Snook’s review of the same disc, listed — incorrectly — under “Santos.” In his review, Snook, whose enthusiasm is somewhat less reserved than mine, describes Braga Santos as “a composer of world-class stature,” and expresses the wish for an integral recording of his six symphonies. “Marco Polo, are you listening?” he concludes. Much to its credit, Marco Polo does seem to be listening, as we now confront what appears to be the first installment of such an integral recording.

Braga Santos’s music falls into two quite distinct style-periods: the first includes four of the symphonies and extends to the mid 1950s; the second begins during the early 1960s, after a period of reflection during which he suspended creative activity. The symphonies offered here represent each of these periods.

Symphony No. 1 is the work of a man of 22, dedicated “to the memory of the Heroes and Martyrs of the last World War.” A blurb on the back of the disc compares its musical style to those of Vaughan Williams and Walton. Its themes are modal and one in the first movement actually suggests Flos Campi, but the postromantic heart of the music is far more Latin than English in its visceral emotionalism, more readily suggesting Respighi and other post-Puccinian figures. In three movements, the symphony is articulated at great leisure over the course of 36 minutes. Most of Braga Santos’s early work is weakened by excessive reliance on simple rhythmic ostinati, overly symmetrical phraseology extended by sequential repetition, and much grandiose rhetoric, and, indeed, that is the case throughout this work. Yet there are also soaring, ardent melodies featuring characteristic harmonic turns that are readily identifiable to the composer even after only limited exposure. The slow movement is probably the most fully realized — and most Italianate–portion of the work, as a wide-interval melody, smoldering with anguish, builds to a climax of operatic grandeur. The third movement is the weakest of the three, beginning along the lines of a scherzo, and leading directly into a long hymn that strains for a grand monumentality, but is too simplistic to be effective.

Symphony No. 5, completed in 1966, is a very different work; indeed, it is fair to say that many who enjoy one of these symphonies will not care for the other at all. Scored for quite a large orchestra, the work bears the subtitle, “Virtus Lusitaniae,” Lusitania being the ancient Roman name for what is now Portugal. However, no further explanation is given for this appellation. Though comparable in length to the Symphony No. 1, the four-movement Fifth abandons both conventional symphonic form and the use of harmony to promote a sense of tonal direction. There is much cluster-harmony, and the lines are quite severe and chromatic. But the music is not truly serial, or even atonal, and its robust orchestration, the dominance of wide-arching lines–especially as carried by the strings, and unwavering angst-ridden emotional intensity, with moods that evoke an ominous sense of mystery, all clearly link the work to a post-romantic mode of expression. The composer, however, may not have viewed it this way, stating that the symphony “can be regarded as a work of the avant-garde of the time.”

Snook describes Braga Santos’s Fifth as “one of the most sublimely searching symphonic statements of the past quarter century” (although in 1996 it was 30 years old), and the work won an award from the International Composers’ Tribunal of UNESCO. It has been performed many times, and a CD has been available on the Portuguese Strauss label (SP 4043), featuring an exciting reading conducted by Silva Pereira. However, despite my overall sympathy with the tone and attitude of the work, it fails to hold my attention consistently over the course of its substantial length because of insufficient harmonic direction and the lack of an interesting polyphonic substructure. The first and third movements are notable for their somber severity of tone. The second movement offers an unusual feature — a percussion idea inspired by a type of marimba ensemble indigenous to Mozambique — which fails to make an impact, possibly because of miscalculations in orchestral balance. The finale begins with driving rhythms that suggest Carlos Chavez, before moving on to a slow final section somewhat reminiscent of the slow movement of Shostakovich’s First, building to an almost unbearable pitch of intensity until it finally culminates rather disastrously in an utterly gratuitous and incongruous major triad.

Despite my general disappointment with both works, I continue to be captivated enough by Braga Santos to await further releases in this series with great eagerness. Marco Polo continues to build a discography that amounts to one of the most distinguished contributions to repertoire expansion in the history of recordings. The performances captured here are adequate, though the sound quality is a bit opaque and muddy. The older Portuguese performance of Symphony No. 5 is somewhat more vital and incisive, and the recording is more transparent, but it is hard to recommend an obscure imported CD that lasts 33 minutes.