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Fernando LOPES-GRAÇA (1906-1994)
Music for String Quartet and Piano - Volume 2
Piano Quartet (1938, rev. 1963) [24.03]
Fourteen Annotations for String Quartet (1966) [11.38]
String Quartet No. 2 (1982) [17.47]
Olga Prats (piano)
Quarteto Lopes-Graça
rec. 24-29 June 2013, Museu da Musica Portuguesa, Monte Estoril, Portugal

This is a follow-up CD to Volume 1 which came out in the spring of 2014. I missed that recording but it features the String Quartet No. 1 and the Suite Rustica No. 2. Indeed this composer’s name was new to me. Not surprising really when you think how little exposure the rest of the world has had to twentieth century Portuguese music. I have, however, heard the symphonies of Luis de Freitas Branco (1890-1955); indeed I have reviewed some of them and Lopes-Graça was a pupil of Branco.

The booklet notes discuss the influence on him of Bartók and de Falla, but he did not appreciate the overt 'Spanishness' of the latter calling some of his music ‘castanuerlero’ a reference to the recurrent use of castanets in pieces like The Three Cornered Hat and El amor brujo. If any of you have had to fight your way with the Portuguese language whilst in that country but have a working knowledge of Spanish you will know that there is almost no similarity between the two, so one shouldn’t be too surprised that Lopes-Graça preferred the de Falla of the Harpsichord Concerto and Master Peter’s Puppet Show, the more astringent and almost neo-classical works.

The Piano Quartet is a three-movement work with two outer Allegros and a central Largo. My appreciation of this piece was however hampered, especially in the first two movements by the incredibly boxy and stifled recording. The bass is boomy and the balance inconsistent; also the intonation of the strings appears to be unreliable and they are sometimes drowning in the confusion. However the third movement was much more agreeable and I felt that it was the most interesting movement with its mixture of child-like joy and seriousness. This is dense music with complex contrapuntal lines and chromatic harmonies. It needs clarity and space and this is what is not achieved.

The first movement has, as a second subject, a ‘rustic’ theme as the detailed and fascinating notes by Frederick Gifford point out. We might also think of it as a folk-inspired idea, and this is where the Bartókian influence emerges. Lopes-Graça has imbibed the traditional melodies of his native land. He spent much of his life arranging and harmonising many for amateur choirs and when suffused with the dance rhythms also found in the opening of the movement it is a toxic mix. The Largo is a passionate outburst and is very dramatic but also often quite solemn. This then could be a very fine work overall but I am at something of a loss to recommend it. This is a pity as the pianist Olga Prats has made a speciality of the composer’s piano style.

After completing his First Quartet Lopes-Graça compiled his Fourteen Annotations for String Quartet and here further influences can be discovered. None of the pieces is longer than fifty-eight seconds and each is concerned with gesture or ostinato. The first, for example, consists of a Bartók snap followed by a bare octave and a three note figure only vaguely developed. The Stravinskian number 2 sports an ostinato with its repeated two cello notes. Its vicious violin lines or ‘timbre’ is rather like the high harmonies explored in number 8. Some of the Annotations are subtitled ‘symmetry’. The plan seems rather random but the annotator makes out a case for an intense sense of organisation. Early Webern is also alluded to not only in the aphoristic nature of these pieces but in their dependence on a single thought. Don’t think that melody is abandoned. For example, no. 5 is quite touching: a lyrical violin line is accompanied by pizzicato cello. The recording is close but that adds to an overall sense of drama.

The Second String Quartet is a four-movement work: Grazioso, Burletta, Cavatina and Finale. It has an arresting and ear-catching opening. The composer’s opposition to the right-wing dictatorship of Oliveira Salazar resulted in the banning of Lopes-Graça’s works and in his being stripped of his official positions. This enabled the composer to concentrate on his compositional development and to steer towards his roots, as mentioned above, in Portuguese folk music. The fourth movement of this work is in a largely dance-like 7/8 and the second uses what Bartók liked to call a ‘peasant’-inspired bass ostinato. In fact the tonality, which hovers somewhere between diatonic and atonal, is also reminiscent of Bartók. There is only one slow movement, the song-like Cavatina; otherwise this is a tense and even aggressive work. The performance is very impressive especially in the virtuoso closing pages of the finale. The Quarteto Lopes-Graça is clearly right inside the music and is technically completely assured.

This disc offers a chance then to discover, in typical Toccata Classics way, unknown repertoire (outside Portugal) from a country we may know little about and in some cases have little understanding of. If it takes your fancy then go for it but I think I would investigate Volume 1 before making a final decision.

Gary Higginson

Previous review: Hubert Culot



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