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Portuguese Music for Cello and Orchestra
Luiz COSTA (1879-1960)
Poema [12:48]
Fernando LOPES-GRAÇA (1906-1994)
Concerto da Camera Op. 167 (1965-66) [22:32]
Luís de FREITAS BRANCO (1890-1955)
Cena Lírica (1916) [6:48]
Joly BRAGA SANTOS (1924-1988)
Cello Concerto Op. 66 (1987) [23:02]
Bruno Borralhinho (cello)
Orquestra Gulbenkian/Pedro Neves
rec. Gulbenkian Auditorium, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, Portugal, 22-26 June 2015. Co-production with RTP-Antena 2 (Radiodifusão Portuguesa) and Lourisom. DDD.
NAXOS 8.573461 [65:09]

This disc must be seen in context with Naxos's numerous discs of twentieth century Portuguese music. The label's work in this field has been tremendous and we must hope that it continues.

Three names here will be familiar to thorough browsers of this site; try a search. Luiz Costa merits an introduction. He was a leading presence in the musical life of his birth city of Porto. He studied with Viana da Motta (review ~ review) and Busoni. Among his 180 works the original 1950s version of the Poema was for cello and piano. He set about an orchestral variant but didn't live to finish it. This was accomplished in 2008 by Pedro Faria Gomes at the request of the composer’s daughter, herself a cellist. What we hear is a romantic Delian idyll but not static and unvaried. Bird-song and Oriental touches see that things remain in engaging and often piquant motion. The adaptation keeps the orchestra pari passu with the cellist. Neither could be said to be a cipher to the other. This is a quite a discovery and should be taken up by the generality of cellists. Young cellists should look to include this as a fresh competition piece. Do be brave and try something out of the ordinary.

Fernando Lopes-Graça studied with Luís de Freitas Branco, José Viana da Motta and Charles Koechlin. The three movement Concerto da Camera, complete with its Martinů-style title, has been recorded before: Rostropovich's premiere in Moscow was issued by Warner-EMI Classics while a Portuguese recording, this time by Maria José Falcão, came out on the much lamented Portusom-Strauss label (review ~ review) and promptly disappeared. Neither of these is conveniently available and in each case the present recorded sound is greatly superior. The Portusom disc was quite short-playing, coupled with one other Lopes-Graça work, while the Warner-EMI version was part of a large 26-CD box. The music here is more obliquely meditative and dissonant. You need to think in terms of the Bernard van Dieren Elegy and the Alan Rawsthorne Cello Concerto; not as disparate as you might expect. The liner-note characterises the music as: "Intensely chromatic, sometimes obsessive, sometimes claustrophobic." I wouldn't dissent. There's a spikily exciting finale.

A pupil of Engelbert Humperdinck, Luís de Freitas Branco, had his Cena Lírica (Lyrical Scene) premièred in Lisbon in 1916. It was his first work for solo instrument and orchestra, just preceding his Violin Concerto. It has a greater affinity with the Costa but with more drama - it feels like a movement from a full-blown concerto. The music is imposing and certainly holds the attention. The cantabile writing for the cello is never bland. You get to the end and wish it had not been over so quickly. For more of the same ilk do try de Freitas Branco's glorious four symphonies (review).

The Joly Braga Santos is a very late work. About the same length as the Lopes-Graça, and also in three movements, this was commissioned by the very same Gulbenkian Foundation whose hall and orchestra were used for these recording sessions. We can say that Braga Santos's music falls into two phases - rather like that of Frank Bridge. Such 'boundaries' are often smeared but certainly this is not the Braga Santos of the first four symphonies. The two outer movements are introspective, lichen-hung and mildly dissonant. The central one is savagely kinetic but with moments of gloomy stasis. The finale has its moments of heroic eloquence (3:00) and towards the end suggests emotional turmoil yet falling away into silence. This Concerto has been recorded before by Naxos - in fact by Marco Polo for its Braga Santos orchestral series (review).

There's much more to this music than this but you can expect to appreciate the two concertos if you enjoy Shostakovich's cello concertos. The two single movement pieces are easier conquests without being at all bland.

The compact booklet notes by Francisco Sassetti are in Portugese with an English translation.

The sound is fine with pleasing detail and full spectrum impact. The performances radiate conviction and include world premieres. I see that the brilliant cellist Bruno Borralhinho is also active as a conductor.

Rob Barnett



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