A fascinating find for me. And hopefully for you as well.
Bob Zeidler | Charlton, MA United States | 09/15/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Fellow classical music reviewer J Scott Morrison, in his review of Joly Braga Santos's Symphony No. 2, was so convincing in his enthusiasm for this largely-unknown 20th-century Portuguese composer that I obtained not only that CD but this one as well. Both CDs are certifiable "winners." There is little that I can add to Scott's comments on the 2nd Symphony and its discmate (the "Crossroads" Ballet); I agree with all that he has written. But there is plenty worthy of comment for this 4th Symphony, coupled on this CD with his "Symphonic Variations."
Braga Santos (1924-1988) spent the early part of his musical career studying under a Portuguese composer of the previous generation, Luis de Freitas Branco, who would appear to have influenced all of Braga Santos's compositions through and including the 4th Symphony, all of which were written while he was still in his 20s. (The excellent booklet notes, by Álvaro Cassuto, the conductor for this Marco Polo series and clearly the principal champion of the music of Braga Santos, go on to state that Braga Santos subsequently studied with Herman Scherchen and Virgilio Motari, and that his later works reflected a more avant-garde compositional style, something that I have yet to look forward to.) Despite his Iberian roots, there is little in his music that brings to mind a characteristically Iberian style (say, that of Manuel de Falla). Instead, there is a more "international" flavor to these works, including some fairly obvious similarities with a number of better-known composers: Bax, Bruckner, Hanson, Nielsen, Ravel, Respighi, Rimsky-Korsakov, Sibelius and Vaughan Williams come to mind at various points throughout the 4th Symphony, and the Symphonic Variations have their Ravelian and Respighian touches as well.
The symphony (Braga Santos's longest, at some 53 minutes), is in four rather evenly divided movements, save for the last movement, which concludes with a stirring epilogue in the form of a chorale that largely accounts for its greater length. Each of the movements is full of good tunes, incorporated with real craftsmanship and a high regard for orchestral color. One can hear the ravishing lushness of Ravel, the motivic cells of Sibelius (even successfully combined with the Ravel touches in several places), brilliant splashes of orchestra color that readily remind one of Respighi, frequently modal writing reminiscent of Vaughan Williams, side drum tattoos that bring Nielsen to mind, and so forth. The epilogue-in-the-form-of-a-chorale that concludes the work does so on a very high note; with its use of timpani ostinato and a chorale theme that is of a definitely "Romantic yearning" bent, it reminds me in most respects of the final-movement coda to Hanson's "Romantic" Symphony, even to its brilliant modulations in the closing bars.
What is exceedingly difficult to put into words is the fact that all of this works, and works brilliantly, without seeming obvious or "pastiche-like." Each movement is a fully-developed entity having its own themes (and ear-catching tunes), with its own immediate appeal, yet the four movements fit together with perfect logic. Tis a puzzlement that this work has labored pretty much in obscurity for a half-century, for it is a "can't fail" audience-pleaser that need make no apologies.
The "Symphonic Variations" (which is the opening track on the disc) is, according to the booklet notes, based on a popular song from the Alentejo region of southern Portugal. It is a catchy tune, even a pretty one, where the "theme and variation" idea is utilized as a formal device for displaying the virtuoso and coloristic capabilities of the orchestra; a "Concerto for Orchestra" without actually being one, so to say. The work is "of a piece" with the 4th Symphony in terms of its obvious craft and its immediate - and seemingly lasting - appeal.
This last point deserves a small bit of additional commentary. Seldom, when listening to something totally new to me, do I latch on to it as I seem to have with these two Braga Santos works. My music library is literally littered with roadkill, stuff I gave a try to that in the end just didn't make an impression on me. Not so for these works; each time I listen to them (and it's been a few times already, just for purpose of putting these thoughts together), I find something new to appreciate in what Braga Santos has crafted.
Marco Polo has done us an outstanding service by committing to disc a major portion of Braga Santos's symphonic output (including all of his symphonies), under the direction of Cassuto. The National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland is a fine group that does justice to both these works, and the sound is excellent.
This is truly a composer who deserves to be "rescued from obscurity," and Cassuto and Marco Polo have done themselves proud in their efforts. I hope to have the opportunity to hear a Braga Santos work performed "live" some day, now that all this "heavy lifting" by Cassuto and Marco Polo has brought his works before the listening public.
Superlative, a Judgment Completely Without Hyperbole
Brent D. Lautenschlegar | Franklin, TN USA | 05/19/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I have little to add to the other estimable reviews printed here other than to say that, as an aficionado of minor composers and out-of-the-way repertoire, I have listened to hundreds of symphonies and other orchestral works from leading but often completely neglected composers of many nations, and have never heard a series of symphonies more impressive than those of Joly Braga Santos. How many so-called 'minor' symphonies have provided pleasure by virtue of their skillful orchestration, their clever handling of thematic development, or their inventive architecture....while failing to imprint upon the musical memory any melodies of distinction or, even less, of simply any resonance. Yet here, in the 4th symphony of Mr. Braga Santos, we have all of the characteristic virtues of masterful composition along with the very rare facet of memorable melodies. Melodies, in fact, that contain the essence of beauty and power that typifies the highest artistic achievements. Everyone who loves music should buy this disc. Every music director should consider programming this or other works of this composer. If music like this were programmed more often audiences would appreciate classical music more so than they do in this time in which programming relies too often on a formula of juxtaposing the same old orchestral repertoire with modern works that usually sacrifice melody and shape for sound effects and architectural ingenuity. To the Andrew Littons of the world.....please champion this music!"
As exuberant as anything you haven't heard
Alan Dean Foster | prescott, az | 09/25/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"If you don't like Braga-Santos's 3rd and 4th symphonies, all I can say is that you must be immune to the joy that classical music can bestow. Full of brilliantine orchestration and sheer musical craftsmanship, the 4th deserves not just to be played, but to be a standard. The fourth movement contains, in additional to the chorale-like coda discussed by other reviewers, not one but two memorable and stirring melodies. Perhaps labeling Braga-Santos the Portugese Tchakovski might help. Anything to get his symphonies 2 thru 4 played. Crystalline performance by the orchestra that, for all its success, only hints at what a major ensemble could do with this piece."
A major Symphonic discovery
Don Clark | St Louis, MO United States | 01/07/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Why a Symphony like this goes unrecorded and unplayed is beyond me. Both the Symphony and the Variations are wonderful, gloriously played and tuneful. The last movement of the symphony is just stunning in its virtuosity culminating in a grand hymn like coda. The rest of Joly Braga Santos' works are worth discovering but for those wanting more of this, his 5th and 6th are more atonal but still major discoveries."
Gorgeous - Gorgeous - Gorgeous
A. Grossman | Florence, Oregon USA | 03/11/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"What a magnificant symphony. It is simply stunning! And the "Hymn to Youth" of the last movement is beyond belief. Get this one. You'll play it again and again."