Braga Santos Hits ... and Misses
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 10/04/2004
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988) is clearly the most important Portuguese composer of the past century, perhaps of any century, and music lovers the world over have been discovering him apace since Marco Polo began this series of recordings of his orchestral music several years ago, all under the direction of Portuguese conductor (and Braga Santos acolyte) Álvaro Cossuto. This disc features Cossuto's fine orchestra, the Algarve Orchestra from the Portuguese region of that name.
Braga Santos had two very distinct styles. Up until Symphony No. 4 (roughly up to 1960) he composed music that was lushly romantic, with some elements of central European post-Romanticism thrown in. After that his style changed radically to a dissonant and at times atonal one. This CD contains works from both periods. I openly identify myself with the admirers of the earlier style and have written an earlier laudatory review of the recording of his Second Symphony. I had not, till now, heard any of his later music. I must admit that now that I have, I have little desire to hear any of it again. On this CD the breakdown is this:
Early romantic style:
Nocturno for strings (1944)
Divertimento No. 1 (1959-1961)
Staccato Brilhante (1988, but similar to the earlier style)
Later dissonant style:
Divertimento No. 2 for strings (1978)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1987)
I quickly fell in love with the first three pieces mentioned. It must be pointed out that the Staccato Brilhante, although written in 1988, was written on commission from the present conductor, Álvaro Cossuto, who had asked for a short piece that could be used as an overture or encore. Cossuto clearly loves Braga Santos's earlier style and has indeed written about the toughness of the later style, almost as if to warn people about it. I suspect he asked the composer for something a little less fearsome. It is a moto perpetuo in one movement and is an exciting, energetic, brilliantly orchestrated gem. Nocturno, seven minutes long, was written when Braga Santos was only twenty and begins with divisi low strings supporting a viola solo of ethereal beauty. The piece develops but maintains a somber long melodic arc introduced in the opening measures. A haunting and memorable piece. The 20-minute-long Divertimento No. 1 is in three movements. It was written for Braga Santos's composition teacher, Virgilio Mortari, and is based on some Portuguese folk materials. The orchestration is expert, particularly in the second movement, Intermezzo, which functions as the scherzo of the piece. The Finale features a catchy 5/8 melody that is followed by a development section that eventually leads to a recapitulation that recalls the opening of the first movement.
The 13-minute-long two-movement Divertimento No. 2 is for strings and although it has some striking ideas and is nicely crafted, it is far too dissonant and vaguely rhapsodic for my taste. So, although I can admire the craft, I cannot, after much listening, bring myself to care much about it. As for the Cello Concerto, written not long before Braga Santos's death, the less said the better. It strikes me as a bitter and disillusioned piece, probably appropriate considering Braga Santos's lack of recognition in his lifetime. But it is also not attractive in any significant way. It is vague, unfocused, meandering, and ultimately boring. That said, one can admire the conviction of the soloist, cellist Jan Bastiaan Neven, who was the principal cellist of the Algarve Orchestra at the time of this recording.
The bottom-line: It is a tossup as to whether one would want to buy this CD. I do indeed like the three earlier pieces, and they constitute roughly half the playing time here. There will be some of you who will not react as I did to the later pieces; they may be more your meat.