Classical CD Reviews

JOLY BRAGA SANTOS: Symphonic Ov. No. 3; Elegy; Alfama: Ballet Suite; Variations for Orch.; Three Symphonic Sketches – Royal Scottish Nat. Orch./ Álvaro Cassuto – Naxos

A great introduction to the music of Portugal’s most important composer.

Published on March 14, 2012

JOLY BRAGA SANTOS: Symphonic Ov. No. 3; Elegy; Alfama: Ballet Suite; Variations for Orch.; Three Symphonic Sketches – Royal Scottish Nat. Orch./ Álvaro Cassuto – Naxos

JOLY BRAGA SANTOS: Symphonic Overture No. 3; Elegy in Memory of Vianna da Motta; Alfama: Ballet Suite (arr. Cassuto); Variations for Orchestra; Three Symphonic Sketches – Royal Scottish Nat. Orch./ Álvaro Cassuto – Naxos 8.572815, 72:36 ****:

The current disc is the seventh in a series on Naxos and its sister label Marco Polo devoted to the music of Portuguese composer Joly Braga Santos (1924–1988). Despite critical inducements to sample earlier releases, which feature Braga Santos’ six symphonies, all conducted by the composer’s countryman Álvaro Cassuto, this is the first release I’ve heard. It whets my appetite for more. The collection under review offers orchestral works that span nearly thirty years, the earliest being the 1948 Elegy dedicated to the memory of Portuguese pianist-composer José Vianna da Motta. It has the hallmarks of Braga Santos’ early style, including a central section in which a modal theme builds to a crescendo over thudding timpani before subsiding into an elegiac close.

Rhythm, coloristic effects, and modal-sounding melodies inform the Symphonic Overture of six years later. It’s cast in standard sonata form but sounds anything but academic in its swaggering syncopations and festival atmosphere, thanks to very busy brass and percussion. The overture’s theme, while original, is said to imitate the folk dances of the Alentejo region of southern Portugal.

With the later works on the program, Braga Santos’ style undergoes a significant change, though rhythm remains a part of the equation. In the latest composition, Variations for Orchestra of 1976, the writing is far more chromatic, the theme and variations that the composer spins from it so subtle and elusive that, according to Álvaro Cassuto, “the work sounds more like an informal improvisation rather than a clearly defined series of variations on a specific theme.” Yet the same expert use of the orchestra obtains, though here Braga Santos is bent on exploring a variety of instrumental timbres rather than seeking out local color. Stylistically, the change recalls the shift from musical nationalism to the “internationalism” that informs Ginastera’s later music, though without the rhythmic flattening that seemed to occur in Ginastera. In fact, Three Symphonic Sketches from 1962 features the increased dissonance of Braga Santos’ later style but still seems all about rhythm and orchestral color and thus offers a good snapshot of the composer’s style in transition.

As for the suite from the ballet Alfama, the highlight of the disc, Braga Santos apparently didn’t put much stock in the original. When Cassuto asked the composer’s widow about the manuscript score of the ballet, she told him to forget about it, that it was a potboiler written early in their marriage, when money was tight and Braga Santos needed to scare up some ready capital. Cassuto writes that the original score was larded with a good many repeats, so he excerpted from it and excised the repeats, resulting in what I find an economical entertaining suite of dances.

Cassuto, Braga Santos’ greatest advocate, has an intimate understanding and sympathy for the composer’s idiom and has the Scottish orchestra playing as if they have more than a bit of Latin blood in their veins. Naxos’ sound is a good match: bright, forward, nicely detailed. This is an excellent place to start exploring the music of Portugal’s finest composer. If you’re like me, you won’t want to stop here.

—Lee Passarella




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