This release is a logical sequel to Cassuto's recordings of Braga Santos' symphonies as well as other miscellaneous orchestral works released on Marco Polo: the Fourth Symphony and Nos. 1/5 3/6 and No 2.
The earliest works here - Elegia a Vianna da Motta Op.14 and Abertura Sinfónica III Op.21 - are still much indebted to Braga Santos' early aesthetics as reflected in the first four symphonies. The overture is a sunny work full of lively rhythms and catchy melodies enlivened by a masterly orchestral flair. The music is pretty straightforward and is mostly based on two main themes, both original but clearly folk-inflected. These dialogue, oppose and – at times – superimpose. This bright, lovely work ends with a short timpani tattoo based on the underlying rhythm of the first main theme and a firmly assertive coda. As may be expected Elegia a Vianna da Motta is a more serious work and one in which the composer allows some dissonance and harmonic tension often absent in the other works from that period. Again the overall structure of this compact work is simple enough. It opens with a mournful first section leading into a somewhat more troubled central core capped by a short, slightly varied restatement of the opening. This is a sincere and deeply felt piece of music that achieves its expressive aims through simple, though highly effective means.
Três Esboços Sinfónicos (“Three Symphonic Sketches”) is clearly a transitional work in Braga Santos' output, in that the music moves away from the modally inflected, richly melodic early style to open out into new territories. Braga Santos was never a radical modernist although he was aware of what was going around him. The music in the first and second movements is fierce, angular and dissonant. The slow movement displays some stringency absent from many earlier works. The final movement, however, is a simpler, more straightforward affair that brings this fine work to its happy conclusion.
The Variações para Orquestra Op.55 is far more searching. It is clearly the result of the preceding period in Braga Santos' output in which his music leaned towards other models such as Bartók and Roberto Gerhard, the latter being heard in parts of the Fifth Symphony. By this time the music of Braga Santos displayed a comparatively greater complexity. The way the variations unfold is not easily traced. However, I think that Álvaro Cassuto may be trusted when he writes in his liner-notes that “a theme does exist, just as there is a series of variations”. What comes clearly through is that this compact, but inventive work is probably one of Braga Santos' most important works. It may at first sound a bit 'difficult' but repeated hearings bring out the inventiveness and mastery of the music. By the way this set of orchestral variations must not be confused with the earlier Variações sobre un Tema Alentejano Op.18 of 1951.
I very much wanted to review this disc because I have a real love of Braga Santos' music. I was also intrigued by Alfama, a work that I could not trace anywhere, not even in the list of works available on www.instituto-camoes.pt. It turns out that he composed it in 1956 when he was about to get married and was cash-strapped. The score was written in some haste and he was not afraid of using repeats of various sections to achieve the desired duration. He also resorted to his early musical vein so that the music is full of colourful scoring and simple themes. However, it seems that the composer was dissatisfied with the work and dismissed it after one performance. One may nevertheless think that it was played more than once. Cassuto, however, eventually had access to the score and could examine it in detail. He came to the conclusion that for all its simplicity – or because of it – the score (or parts of it) could be usefully rescued. He set to work, mostly by shortening some episodes and by eliminating unnecessary repeats to draw out a ballet suite which is a dance sequence of simple, unpretentious vignettes deftly scored and full of lively rhythms and lovely orchestral touches. This is definitely no imperishable masterpiece but a quite attractive, unproblematic work displaying Braga Santos' craftsmanship even when not at his most inspired.
Cassuto knows and understands Braga Santos' music well. He thus conducts impeccable and committed readings of these often quite beautiful works. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra respond with equally committed playing. So, if you have been hooked by Cassuto's recordings of the symphonies, this generously filled release is for you. It may also be safely recommended to anyone new to Braga Santos' music, were it only because it offers a fair survey of this composer's stylistic evolution over the years. I hope that Álvaro Cassuto will continue recording other works by Braga Santos for there are two other overtures, a piano concerto and a handful of shorter orchestral works that still await professional recordings. Would it be too much to expect a recording of one of Braga Santos' operas; perhaps Trilogia das Barcas Op.49?
I would like to add a short footnote either for Mr Cassuto or anyone who could help. I mentioned a list of works that I found in the website of the Institute Camões. I notice that there was a discrepancy as to the opus numbers mentioned there and those generally mentioned on record-sleeves and covers. Could anyone shed some light on this?