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Fernando LOPES-GRAÇA (1906-1994)
Piano Concerto no.1 (1940) [30:15]
Piano Concerto no.2 (1950/1971) [24:48]
Eldar Nebolsin (piano)
Orquestra Sinfónica do Porto/Matthias Bamert
Recorded: Casa da Música, Porto, Portugal, 11-12 March (no.1) & 13-14 May (no.2) 2011.
NAXOS 8.572817 [55:03]
 
Fernando LOPES-GRAÇA (1906-1994)
Suite Rústica no.1 (1950) [14:53]
Poema de Dezembro (1961) [10:11]
Marcha Festiva (1954) [6:47]
Sinfonia (1944) [34:39]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Álvaro Cassuto
rec. Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, 26-27 July 2011.
NAXOS 8.572892 [66:30] 

These are the opening two volumes from Naxos devoted to a composer the booklet notes describe as "one of the most significant figures in Portuguese music of the twentieth century". He is certainly one of the most original, as the two piano concertos and symphony testify.
 
Piano Concerto no.1 is quite unforgettable, thanks in part to the catchy refrain that runs through the first movement, but also to the composer's employment of folk rhythms and melodies and a frequent scordatura-type effect. Piano Concerto no.2 is in many respects a darker version of no.1, but is even better, especially the passionate Rachmaninov-meets-Ravel slow movement. That these works are virtually never heard outside Portugal is a major crime. Uzbekistan-born soloist Eldar Nebolsin gives a good, strong account, whilst Naxos stalwart Matthias Bamert does a reasonable job of extracting a competent, confident performance from the Porto Symphony Orchestra. At 55 minutes, value for money here is less than it might have been - Lopes-Graça's piano concertino would surely have fitted on. Perhaps Naxos intend to record it with the composer's only other work for piano and orchestra, the Fantasy on a Religious Song?
 
On the earlier disc the Portuguese interest comes from experienced conductor Álvaro Cassuto, who visited Scotland to take charge of the marvellous RSNO in Glasgow for a programme of orchestral works dominated by Lopes-Graça's symphony of 1944. This work, somewhat tautologically listed as 'Sinfonia per Orchestra' - its original title, according to Cassuto - is distinguished not only by its ample proportions. Lopes-Graça lived another fifty years without writing a second symphony, which must rank as a significant loss to Portuguese music, for this is a work of some originality, quasi-neoclassical in spirit but incorporating a good deal of picturesque amor patriae. Portugal's neutrality in World War II ensures an absence of angst in Lopes-Graça's music of this period.
 
In the Suite Rústica no.1 (nos. 2 and 3 are not for orchestra) Lopes-Graça offers more native dance music, although now he has given old tunes a full art-music workover, polishing, refining, layering. In December Poem and Festival March folk influences are much less obvious, if indeed present at all. The ruminative December Poem is appropriately bleak, the prominent role given to a solo oboe almost ominous, whilst Festive March is decidedly more frenetic than the title implies. Comparing these two, Cassuto suggests that "one of them cries, the other one laughs". In fact, the March is reminiscent in its zany humour and imaginative orchestration of Malcolm Arnold.
 
This disc marks in fact a Scottish return for Cassuto, his recording with the RSNO of Lopes-Graça's younger compatriot Joly Braga Santos two years ago having been well received (8.572815, review). In this interesting online interview for Naxos, Cassuto tells of Herbert von Karajan's influence on him, although there is perhaps understandably little evidence of it in this Portuguese music. As an ensemble the RSNO is in a different league to the PSO, and in that respect this is a slightly more satisfying CD for a one-off investment into this composer's music - especially with the extra ten minutes running time. On the other hand, Lopes-Graça is a significant composer who should be much better known, and these are both important recordings that all 20th-century music cognoscenti should be familiar with.
 
Audio quality is creditably high in both cases, although the earlier one made in Glasgow gives an extra measure in terms of clarity and depth. That disc also has generous, well written notes by Cassuto; the latter, by Ivan Moody. Both writers do however give much space to a rather unnecessary movement-by-movement description of the music, almost as if expecting listeners not to have ears of their own.
 
Byzantion
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See also review of 8.572892 (Sinfonia) by Hubert Culot (July 2012 Recording of the Month)