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Portuguese Music for Cello and Orchestra
Luiz COSTA (1879-1960)
Poema (completed and orchestrated by Pedro Gomes) (c.1955/2008) [12:48]
Fernando LOPES-GRAÇA (1906-94)
Concerto da Camera col violoncello obbligato, op.167 (1965-66) [22:32]
Luís de FREITAS BRANCO (1890-1955)
Cena Lírica (1916) [6:48]
Joly BRAGA SANTOS (1924-88)
Concerto for cello and orchestra, op.66 (1987) [23:02]
Bruno Borralhinho (cello) Orquestra Gulbenkian/Pedro Neves
rec. 22-26 June 2015, Gulbenkian Auditorium, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, Portugal.
NAXOS 8.573461 [65:09]

All four works on this CD are new to me. Each one is impressive (in its own way) and led me to wonder why I have not heard them played in the concert hall or on CD. Two of the works (Luiz Costa and Luís de Freitas Branco) are World Premiere Recordings and the other two have at least one other commercial recording, which I have not heard. I rely heavily on the excellent Naxos liner notes written by Francisco Sassetti and translated by Susannah Howe for my review of this first-rate repertoire.

Biographically, there seems little information about Luiz Costa. There is a short Wikipedia entry (in Portuguese), but no reference in the online version of Grove. Briefly, Costa was born in São Pedro de Farelães on 25 September 1879 and spent much of his time in Oporto (Porto) as a teacher and latterly as director of the Oporto Music Conservatory, and as a composer, and pianist. He studied with José Vianna da Motta, Bernhard Stavenhagen and Ferruccio Busoni. Costa performed with the cellists Pablo Casals, Anton Hekking and Guilhermina Suggia as well as the violinist George Enesco. He introduced Maurice Ravel to concert-goers in Oporto. His catalogue contains around 180 works, in a variety of genres, with many works for the piano. Luiz Costa died in Oporto on 7 January 1960.

The Poema was originally written for cello and piano during the mid-1950s: Costa had planned to rescore it for cello and orchestra, shortly before he died, but only managed to produce some notes about the planned orchestration. Pedro Faria Gomes has written that he “was commissioned in 2008 by Luiz Costa’s family to complete and orchestrate the ‘Poema’…I completed the piece, adding several new elements, including a cadenza for the cello, and orchestrated it.” This is a work that is ‘retro’, but none the worse for that. It has nothing to reflect the rising avant-garde or serialist techniques prominent during the nineteen-fifties. The Poema is a studied combination of impressionist harmonies, romantic melodies and a virtuosic cadenza. It is characterised by warm lyricism and a relaxed mood.

I found Fernando Lopes-Graça’s (1906–94) Concerto da Camera col violoncello obbligato, Op. 167 the most difficult work to come to terms with on this CD. The liner notes identify the ‘sombre, dissonant and somewhat austere tone’ of this piece. It was commissioned by Mstislav Rostropovich, who duly premiered the concerto on 6th October 1967, in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, when the Moscow Philharmonic was conducted by Kirill Kondrashin.

It is not so much that this work is too modern or avant-garde for my taste: more that it is simply quite depressing. I do not deny that it is a deeply felt work that is well-written for the cello and has a satisfying formal construction. I listened carefully to this work on two occasions and I admit that a little light does emerge on a second hearing. It is possible to discover some beautiful phrases and moments for soloist and orchestra; however, the general impression remains that this is an “intensely chromatic, sometimes obsessive, sometimes claustrophobic” work that probably reflected the “social and political context of the day”. Portugal at that time was subject to the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970), who was keen to promote the ‘folk-arts’ of his country rather than ‘modernist’ music. Whether Fernando Lopes-Graça felt that the situation in Moscow was considerably better is something we may never know.

The shortest work on this CD is the most delightful. Luís de Freitas Branco’s ‘Cena Lirica’ (Lyrical Scene) was composed around 1916, before the composer adopted his neo-classical style for which he is noted today. It was his first attempt at writing a concerted work. During the 1940s, the composer revised ‘Cena Lirica’, making a number of changes to the scoring. In some ways, this work is difficult to define. It is characterised by sheer lyricism and a perfect understanding of the possibilities of cello. The climax of the work is considerable, bearing in mind it lasts just under seven minutes. This is a romantic piece, that skilfully balances shades of light and darkness, but is always positive in its effect. The work was premiered in Lisbon on 9th April 1916. Luís de Freitas Branco studied in Lisbon and later with Engelbert Humperdinck in Berlin. Before the Second World War he taught at the Lisbon Conservatory, but was removed from this post in 1939 because of his protests against the persecution of artists in Germany and Italy. The final years of his life were dedicated to composition. His catalogue includes four symphonies, concertos for piano and violin as well as chamber music and choral works. His music went through at least three stylistic changes: impressionist, Franckian-romantic and finally neo-classical.

Lisbon-born Joly Braga Santos was a pupil of Luís de Freitas Branco. He was a composer, conductor, critic and music teacher. Braga Santos is regarded by most critics as the leading Portuguese symphonist of his generation. The Concerto for cello and orchestra, op.66 was a commission from the Gulbenkian Foundation: the work was completed in March 1987. It has been described as being more of a symphonic poem with cello solo. Certainly, the liner notes point out that “at various times in the first movement, the orchestra seems to take over and subjugate the soloist, who seems only permitted to make the occasional comment, as if there in a purely observational capacity”. The work is presented in three movements, played without a break: Moderato, Allegro and Andante. This reverses the ‘normal’ structural principle of a concerto. The work covers a wide emotional range, with moments of sadness, joy and much introversion. This is not an easy work to come to terms with, at least on a single hearing, and I believe it will require the listener to give it a second or third chance. The quality of the orchestration is superb: it often seems to shimmer in sunlight and sometimes is shrouded in a sea mist. The Cello Concerto is a lyrical work that is timeless in its mood. It is difficult to believe that it was written as late as 1987; I am not sure which decade I would situate it in.

The playing by the Portuguese cellist Bruno Borralhinho was inspiring even in the music noted above as being oppressive. The orchestra, based in Lisbon, under their conductor Pedro Neves, was consistently on good form. The first-rate liner notes give details about the composers and the works performed: they are printed in English and Portuguese.

All-in-all this is a thought-provoking CD presenting music that is probably a little ‘out of area’ for many UK listeners, in spite of our love of the Algarve, Lisbon and Oporto. It is invariably a valuable experience to approach works that are unknown (at least to this reviewer) and discover a wealth of interest, musical craftsmanship and sheer enjoyment. All cellists and cello enthusiasts will want to assess these works and hopefully build them into their playing and listening schedules.

John France

Previous review: Rob Barnett



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