> SANTOS Concerto for Strings [CW]: Classical Reviews- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Joly Braga SANTOS
(a) Concerto for Strings in D (1951); (b) Sinfonietta for Strings (1963); (c) Variations Concertantes for Strings and Harp (1967); (d) Concerto for Violin, Cello, Strings and Harp (1967)
(d) Bradley Creswick (violin), Alexander Somov (cello); (c,d) Sue Blair (harp) Northern Sinfonia, Álvaro Cassuto (conductor)
Recorded Jubilee Theatre, St Nicholas' Hospital, Gosforth, 26th-28th April 2001
Marco Polo 8.225186 (67:51)


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Joly Braga Santos was until recently one of Portugal's best kept secrets. Largely thanks to Marco Polo his cover has now been well and truly blown, and this issue of orchestral music for strings makes a substantial pendant to their CDs featuring five of the six symphonies. Portuguese maestro Álvaro Cassuto worked closely with Braga Santos for many years before his sudden and early death in 1988, and his readings of these four works carry the same authentic mastery as his ear-opening recordings of the symphonies.

Braga Santos's admirers will find the furthest reaches of his musical odyssey here, from the Concerto in D (1951) with its shades of Kodaly, Bartok and Vaughan Williams, through the increasingly tortured lyricism of the Sinfonietta (1963) to the bleak poetry of the two later works for strings and harp. Only the mellow synthesis finally achieved in works such as the Divertimento No.2 (1978) is missing from Cassuto's survey. The huge gulf between the confident, modal writing of the 1940's and 50's and the introspective poet of the 60's and beyond can seem as disconcerting here as in the symphonies. Consistent musical personality is tricky to pin down, although rhythmic drive and a penchant for juxtapositions of extreme tempi provide something of a Braga Santos signature. In truth, such things mattered little to him. As the critic Joao de Freitas Branco said, "He distinguished between being the first to do this or that, and the only one to do it this way". When all is said and done, any suspicion that the later Braga Santos succumbed to self-doubt and fashionable atonality is quelled by the sheer musical quality of all four works here.

Anyone who responds to Vaughan Williams or Kodaly will love the Concerto in D, a three movement classic of the string repertoire which deserves to be much better known. The deeply-felt, elegiac tread of the slow movement (played at the composer's own funeral) is specially good, once heard never forgotten. The English Sinfonia prove more incisive, vigorous interpreters than the Orquestra Classica de Porto on the rival version from Koch Schwann, and good though that version was, the new one is preferable - even more so in the bleaker shadows of the Martin-like Sinfonietta, another vital, three movement work which demands more confidence and imagination than the Porto players under Misha Meisky provided. That Koch CD remains indispensable, though, for the equally absorbing 2nd Divertimento, Staccato brilhante and Elegy for Vianna da Motta, none otherwise available in the UK catalogue.

The two works for concertante strings and harp are initially a forbidding shock to the system; but their darkly brilliant, fine-spun poetry deepens on acquaintance, and there's no doubt that this is music of quality, structurally cogent as well as subtly imagined for its instrumental forces. The 1967 Variations are enigmatic, almost too highly compressed (thank goodness for Cassuto's detailed, highly enlightening notes on this and the other pieces) but the more expansive three-movement work from the same year - a Double Concerto in the baroque rather than romantic sense, with the two string soloists first amongst equals - recaptures the winning certitude of the earlier works.

Here both Bradley Creswick and Alexander Somov pitch their contribution appropriately this side of showy virtuosity, and the clear recording - a mite congested at climaxes - generally helps clarify the subtle strands of Braga Santos's writing. Cassuto at the helm of an English Sinfonia at the top of their form adds to the appeal of a fine issue which does much to fill out our picture of this most worthwhile and surprising initiate into the ranks of indisputably great 20th century composers. Now, Marco Polo, please give us the operas!

Christopher Webber

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