Joly BRAGA SANTOS (1924-1988)
Symphonic Overture No. 3 (1954) [13:57]
Elegy in memory of Vianna da Motta (1948) [10:37]
Alfama: Ballet Suite (arr. Á. Cassuto) (1956)* [24:23]
Variations for Orchestra (1976)* [12:50]
Three Symphonic Sketches (1962) [10:49]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Álvaro Cassuto
rec. RSNO Centre, Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, Scotland, 8-9 March 2011. DDD
*World Premičre Recordings
NAXOS 8.572815 [72:36]
The list of composers indebted to Naxos and its sister label Marco Polo for giving them worldwide dissemination. grows by the month if not the day. Likewise, many collectors such as myself will have revelled in the financially low-risk exploration of musical byways.
Of all of the composers I have discovered solely through these labels, the Portuguese Joly Braga Santos comes high up the list of most enjoyable discovery of all. His six symphonies are a marvellous introduction to his highly accessible music. They receive excellent performances from various orchestras under the assured direction of leading Braga Santos authority Álvaro Cassuto.
This is the first Braga Santos disc on Naxos and the first time – on disc – the Royal Scottish National Orchestra have played it. Unsurprisingly, this is very assured all round with the orchestra sounding unfussily good. They are caught in healthy sound at the acoustically dependable Henry Wood Hall Glasgow by the reliable team of producer Andrew Walton and engineer Phil Rowlands.
As this is the sixth disc in the series there is a little sense of holes in the existing recorded repertoire being plugged. Even so it makes for a varied and pleasurable programme. The music presented here spans twenty-eight years from when the composer was twenty-four until he was fifty-two. The CD is not presented chronologically because, as Cassuto explains in his own brief liner, he wished to create a concert programme rather than a sequential reference disc. Hence the first work is the Symphonic Overture No.3. That is a slightly dry title for an instantly appealing work which while consisting of original themes clearly breathes Iberian air. As with so much Braga Santos, there is strong melodic memorability here allied to open and effective scoring. After a slow introduction the main theme flows with an appealing gallant sweep supported by an insistent side-drum and brass flourishes. The essential mood is vivacious and joyful although the big climax a minute or so from the end is impassioned and powerful. There is something faintly cinematic about the music but it sets out to please and is wholly successful.
The earliest work on the disc comes next and is much more austere and indeed sombre.. It is the Elegy in memory of Vianna da Motta. José Vianna da Motta was one of Liszt’s last piano pupils. He went on to become an important figure on the Portuguese musical scene. Quite what direct link inspired the Braga Santos composition is not clear but it resulted in an impressive ten minute eulogy. The central section is a powerful lamenting cortege that builds over muffled drums to an assertively emotional climax before sinking back to the musing opening – a lovely cor anglais solo entwined with sonorous violas.
The longest work here receives its world premiere recording. It is a suite assembled by Álvaro Cassuto from the ballet Alfama. According to Braga Santos’s widow the composer disowned it as unworthy and written in too much haste. What is not clear is the narrative being portrayed or how much of the complete score we are hearing. Alfama, by the way, refers to the Arab neighbourhood in central Lisbon. The nine movement titles give little away; Dance of the Sailor or Dance of the girls around the fire, for example. Cassuto’s instinct that Braga Santos could not write ‘bad’ music is undoubtedly right but at the same time no-one would claim that this contains his profoundest music. It’s well-crafted, easy on the ear music that does the job required of it. I don’t know but is it just because I know it is from the Spanish peninsula that I hear the occasional lilt of a Rodrigo or a de Falla here – more so than in his ‘proper’ music. Again I expect that this has as much to do with the pictorial/narrative demands of the piece rather than any paucity of invention. I am pleased to have heard this music but it is undeniable that it is not much more than a well-crafted chip off a much more major block.
There is a jump of exactly twenty years to the next work – the Variations for Orchestra – which are also receiving their premiere recording. By the time they were written in 1976 Braga Santos had embraced a more modernistic, less obviously tonal approach. The change from the smilingly-sunny ballet to the shadow-land elusiveness of the Variations is quite a jolt. Cassuto is absolutely right in his note to say that this does not ‘sound’ like a traditional theme and variations work. That is because the theme itself is far from obvious and the way in which it is then varied does not always occupy the foreground of the argument. Instead the listener is aware of a sequence of differing moods and gestures that have the abbreviated quality of motifs rather than the extended style of themes in the traditional sense. Quite often the emotional world of later Malcolm Arnold sprang to mind especially in the way that the composer moves with extreme disjunction from one section to another. This results in clashing passages where the juxtaposition of such apparently unrelated material can leave the listener initially confused and disorientated. Experience tells me that repeated listening allows the brain to create a logic and impose a sense of structure. Where this work is unusual is that Braga Santos does not seek a wide range of moods within the variation form. Rather these are simply variants on the main bleak and harsh atmosphere. By some distance this is the knottiest music on the disc.
Interestingly the Three Symphonic Sketches that complete the disc lie on a metaphorical graph line both in date terms and stylistic evolution between the early Elegy and the late Variations. So there are the restless ostinati of the earlier work and the powerful emotion of the Elegy. All this is couched in a harmonic language and the gaunter orchestration of the later work.
The more I listened to this disc the more I felt the analogy with Malcolm Arnold to be appropriate - not in the sound as such - Arnold is the more flamboyant and exciting orchestrator - but in the wide range of emotions and styles. Also, with both composers I would recommend new or inquisitive listeners to investigate their symphonies first for a sense of the 'real' composer.
This disc encapsulates the ability of Naxos to produce discs of considerable technical, artistic and musical merit of repertoire even knowledgeable collectors have never encountered before. As I write this review there has been the announcement that Naxos are increasing their prices to lift the label into the mid-price bracket. Time will tell what impact that decision has on the curious-but-on-a-budget collector. I would say a disc like this one might well be vulnerable. At bargain price this might well be considered a punt but at mid-price other Braga Santos discs should be the first port of call - his Symphony No.4 is an absolute winner.
For those already converted to the cause of this very fine but still little-known composer this is a high quality disc displaying an impressive range of musical styles.
Nick Barnard
A high quality disc displaying an impressive range of musical styles.

see also reviews by Rob Barnett and Hubert Culot

The Braga Santos Symphonies on Marco Polo
Nos. 1/5, 3/6
No. 2