Fernando LOPES-GRAÇA (1908 - 1993)
Suite Rústica No.1 (1950) [14:53]
December Poem (1961) [10:11]
Festival March (1954) [6:47]
Symphony for Orchestra (1944) [34:39]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Álvaro Cassuto
rec. Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Scotland, 26-27 July 2011
NAXOS 8.572892 [66:30]
With his somewhat younger contemporary Joly Braga Santos, Fernando Lopes-Graça is undoubtedly one of the most important Portuguese composers from the first half of the 20th century. His output is literally enormous and ranges from short didactic piano pieces to substantial works in various genres. He also devoted much time and scholarship to editing and arranging Portuguese folk music - a voice that is rarely absent in his own music.
The Suite Rústica No.1 dates from 1950 and its six movements are arranged in a straight-forward way though spiced with mild dissonance sometimes recalling Milhaud’s Suite Provençale. Four out of the six movements are simple dance tunes deftly arranged and colourfully scored but the two slower movements (No.3 - Andante and No.5 - Lento, non troppo) are somewhat more serious. Just listen to the almost Mahlerian Andante. Incidentally, Lopes-Graça did indeed compose three Rustic Suites but for different instrumental forces. Suite Rústica No.2 of 1965 is for string quartet (once available on Portugalsom SP 4036 reviewed here several years ago) and Suite Rústica No.3 is for wind ensemble; I do not know whether it has been recorded or not.
On the other hand there is not a single hint of folk music in Poema de Dezembre (“December Poem”). This is a meaty tone poem in which a rather dark and at times troubled mood prevails. The “red thread” running through the entire work is the oboe melody heard at the outset. It keeps reappearing in one guise or another and providing the dreamy coda of this very beautiful piece that definitely deserves wider exposure.
Festival March is by comparison slightly less satisfying, possibly because one expects something brighter and more festive than what one actually hears. Even so there are many felicitous touches of scoring in this short piece - try the eerily dancing horns (at about 0.50 into the work) that may remind one of Stravinsky's Petrushka. There is actually more than one hint of Stravinsky's music in this very piece and in other works of Lopes-Graça. This short work may not be among Lopes-Graça's greatest achievements but there are fine things enough in it to make it worth more than the occasional hearing.
Sinfonia per orquesta is Lopes-Graça's only symphony and one of his more substantial achievements. This is a weighty, deeply serious and sincere piece of music-making. It is in three sizeable movements of which the outer ones are by far the weightiest, the concluding Passacaglia particularly so. The very title of the first movement Allegro rapsodico is rather deceptive in that it actually conceals a developed and tightly argued sonata movement that builds to an imposing climax before reverting to the arresting gesture of the opening. The second movement Intermezzo may be shorter but is certainly not as easy-going as one might think. Its structure is more straightforward than that of the outer movements but the thematic material is rather angular and animated so that one might regard this movement as the symphony's Scherzo. As Álvaro Cassuto rightly states in his detailed and well informed insert notes, the third movement Passacaglia is the symphony's most complex movement. It is also the most difficult to bring out successfully. This is mainly because of the abruptness and capricious character of the variations that do not unfold as seamlessly as in, say, the final Passacaglia in Vaughan Williams' Fifth Symphony. The variations, however, proceed towards an imposing climax, probably the most impressive one in the entire work. This quickly dissipates and leads into the coda, in fact yet another variation on a fragment of the Passacaglia's theme. It consists of a mighty sound wave receding into softly sustained chords. Lopes-Graça's Symphony is unquestionably a big work and it deserves to be fully appreciated. It’s also a rather complex piece and a convincing performance calls for some considerable preparation and commitment. This it clearly gets in this strongly committed and well prepared reading - a feather in the cap of both Cassuto and the RSNO.
Álvaro Cassuto's association with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra has already yielded some rewarding results with their Braga Santos disc - Naxos 8.572815 that I reviewed here some time ago. The release under review clearly confirms that conductor and orchestra are obviously on the same wavelength. I hope that this association will go on for there is still much worthwhile music by Portuguese composers to travel outside Portugal. As far as Lopes-Graça's music goes there are many works that cry out for brand new recordings. I would welcome new recordings of História Trágica-Marítima, Viagens na minha terra and the imposing and deeply moving Requiem while not forgetting some of his concertos and miscellaneous orchestral works.
In short this is a magnificent release on all counts. The performances and the recording are superb but - more importantly - it allows for a good appraisal of some of this endearing composer's finest works. A bargain and no mistake.
A superb selection of some of Lopes-Graça's finest works.