BRAGA SANT0S: Symphony No. 2 Crossroads (Ballet)

BRAGA SANTOS Symphony No. 2. Crossroads (Ballet) – Alvaro Cassuto, cond; Bournemouth SO – MARCO POLO 8.225216 (65:23)

This new release nearly completes Marco Polo’s survey of the six symphonies of Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988). My reaction can be summarized in one sentence: If you’ve been following this series, and you enjoyed Braga Santos’s First and Third Symphonies, then you will like No. 2; if you didn’t like the First and Third, then you won’t like this one, and for the same reasons. The only symphony still awaiting release is No. 4, which happens to be my favorite, but it offers no surprises to anyone familiar with its predecessors (Nos. 5 and 6 are more problematical, however, and listeners’ reactions are harder to predict).

The symphonies of Braga Santos are probably Portugal’s most auspicious contribution to the orchestral repertoire: distinctive in style, with real personality and an expressive urgency that is palpable from the first note. I have been relishing each new release as it appears, although certain weaknesses do hold Braga Santos back from membership among the highest-ranking composers of his generation. I’m afraid that these reservations make me the faint-praiser among my Fanfare colleagues. (Paul Snook, in 20:1, called him “a composer of world-class stature,” while Martin Anderson [22:3] wrote, “Braga Santos is a major discovery and his music is utterly thrilling,” and went on to compare him with Vaughan Williams, Walton, and other English composers. I don’t hear anything at all English in this music, and can only attribute Anderson’s remarks to his own personal frame of reference. For me the strongest influence is Respighi, along with some reminiscences of Miklos Rozsa.

Braga Santos’s music falls into two distinct style-periods: the first, up through the mid-1950s, and the second, from the early 1960s on, the two separated by a period of creative silence. He completed his First Symphony when he was 22, and his Fourth when he was 26; that tells you something. They are very similar works. In my review of the Symphony No.1 in 22:3, I wrote, “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.” Now, after listening to No. 2, I would say the previous comments apply precisely, although No. 1 had three movements, while No. 2 has four, and is a few minutes longer. But the work has the same passionate, driving forward-motion as its predecessor and successor, and with the same post-romantic lyrical thrust. The main theme of the first movement is a bit more angular than its counterparts in the other early symphonies, but its chromaticism is only superficial, as its harmonic foundation is solidly tonal. The slow movement is an elegy of similarly tragic dimension. The scherzo is rather folk-like and simple in concept, while the finale aims toward a transcendently triumphant apotheosis, but with a grandiosity that requires some indulgence from the listener.

The ballet suite Crossroads dates from 1967, so one might anticipate a more angular, atonal language. But because it is based on a Portuguese folk-tale set among peasants, Braga Santos adopted a pleasantly tuneful language, not unlike the scherzo of the Second Symphony, although its overall tone is lighter, crisper, and drier than the portentous solemnity characteristic of much of the early symphonic music. I feel confident in predicting that those listeners who enjoy the early symphonies will also enjoy Crossroads.

Conductor Álvaro Cassuto brings the same sympathetic attitude to these works as he did with the two earlier discs, although here he leads the Bournemouth Symphony, a more experienced, cosmopolitan ensemble than the Portuguese Symphony Orchestra featured on the previous releases. Braga Santos continues to strike me as an authentic talent whose music is often irresistible and offers a great deal of pleasure despite its undeniable weaknesses. Whether he ever transcended these deficiencies to produce a true masterpiece I have yet to conclude, as much of his work remains unrecorded. (The yet-to-appear Fourth Symphony is similarly flawed, though it seems more fully realized nevertheless.) However, I am definitely motivated to check out each new release as it comes along, and I suspect that many listeners will be similarly captivated.