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Luis de FREITAS BRANCO (1890-1955)
Violin Concerto (1916) [31.52]
Joly Braga SANTOS (1924-1988)
Crossroads (Ballet) (1968) [16.22]
Divertimento No.1 (1960) [20.41]
Alexandre da Costa (violin)
Orquestra Sinfónica de Extremadura/Jesús Amigo
rec. Palacio de Congresos y Exposociones de Merida, October 2004. 
VMS 158 [69.28]

This is a good, sound coupling of music by two stars of the Portuguese musical firmament, born over a generation apart; certainly better than some of the odd conjunctions that Freitas Branco in particular has suffered over the years on various labels.
His 1916 Violin Concerto, written in the same year as the Delius, receives its première recording here. The orchestration is immediately arresting but we soon get treated to a raft of influences on the young composer – Bruch, Rimsky and Dvořák in the main with a touch of Brahms and a little Bruckner in the finale. This rather vulgar summary doesn’t, obviously, do justice to Freitas Branco’s imaginative resources. The answering phrases between soloist and orchestra are adept and the lyric flights of the violin from, say, 5’00 onwards are a delight. The extensive cadenza from 6’00 onwards is far too early and a sure sign of imbalance and, to be frank, some of the later writing in the opening movement does sound more than a touch square.
Still, the Scheherazade feel that pervades the slow movement is tinged with Wagnerian harmonic depth and there’s a strongly vocalised feel to the melodies over the rippling harp accompaniment. The brass flare-ups are certainly Wagnerian enough though the triumphalist march that starts the finale contains a touch of Bruckner. Too much note-spinning rather limits one’s admiration for the finale but it’s a youthful work full of a certain undigested promise.
Braga Santos’s two scores are cut from a more mature cloth, being the work of a man upwards of thirty-five. The earlier of the two is the impressive Divertimento No.1 a three-movement work based on popular themes – very unusual for him. The splendidly orchestrated writing is certainly drenched in dance rhythms, whilst managing to retain independence and a certain warm clarity; something of Vaughan Williams’s mid period symphonic writing is here as well. The last of the three movements gorges on skirl and Sibelius, building to a driving climax (see review of Marco Polo recording of both Divertimentos). 
His 1968 ballet Crossroads is a story of bride, ruffians and village merriment. It’s brief – not much more than quarter of an hour – and cast in five scenes. There’s a driving tarantella and a rather terse section for the Lisbon neighbourhood dance before a cacophonous percussive outburst. Things are simplified for a harmonically straightforward Fandango and we end in open-air freshness in the final General Dance scene. A most attractive work, this, and unpretentious but full of contrastive devices, rhythms, colours and moods (see review of Marco Polo recording of Crossroads)

Alexandre da Costa makes a good case for the Violin Concerto. He doesn’t have a romantically opulent tone but it is very centred and he employs some super-fine and quick portamenti to lace the solo line with provocative period devices.  The Orquestra Sinfónica de Extremadura under Jesús Amigo acquit themselves with credit, though the strings certainly sound undernourished in the Concerto. The recording is a touch blowsy. Decent notes. It all adds up to a courageous and enjoyable release.

Jonathan Woolf




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