In my continuing quest to unearth examples of interesting and really listenable neglected music, the works of Joly Braga Santos hold a special place – especially those works from his first compositional phase. Braga Santos was Portugal’s leading symphonic composer of the last century and, considering the accessibility of much of his output, it is rather surprising that he is not better known. Born in Lisbon, he began his musical studies at the age of 10 at the Lisbon Conservatory, initially focusing on violin but later concentrating on composition. Leaving the conservatory nine years later he then completed two years of private study with the leading Portugese composer of the preceding generation, Luís de Freitas Branco. The older composer had a considerable influence on Braga Santos and his colourful style of orchestration (not unlike that of Respighi) had a lasting impact on the younger man, who became something of a disciple.
The connection usefully extended to Branco’s brother, Pedro (founder of the Portuguese Radio Symphony Orchestra and its conductor in the 1950s), when Braga Santos joined the staff of Portugese Radio as a musical director in 1947. The conductor recognised the young man’s talent early on and was responsible for launching his international career at this time, with several very successful premieres of orchestral works around Europe - notably the first four symphonies. Braga Santos’s early symphonic works were immediately accessible, often influenced by the styles of other tonal post-war European composers but usually reflecting the composer’s desire to draw connections between contemporary and earlier music. A few works betray the outlines of folksongs as their source material although Braga Santos, unlike some of his contemporaries, was not one for collecting folksongs.
The Symphonic Overture No.1 was the first work Braga Santos composed for orchestra – at the age of 21. Its structure consists of a slow introduction with a flute solo, a related Allegro, a lyrical second theme leading to a climax and a return to the slow introduction, with a final recapitulation and coda. There are elements of Vaughan Williams but in atmosphere the music sounds to me to be closer to other contemporary British composers such as Bush and Rawsthorne and is about as memorable as their works of the period.
The Symphonic Overture No 2 of the following year - subtitled “Lisboa” (Abertura Sinfónica) - follows a very similar structure. Its introduction is, however, rather longer and more wistful, with woodwind over a cushion of strings – much like Vaughan Williams in pastoral mode and even with hints of Lilburn (although any idea that Braga Santos could ever have heard the works of Lilburn seems unlikely). The Allegro section that follows is somewhat more anonymous and has a purposeful tread. According to the excellent booklet notes (by the disc’s conductor) this section contains a development of the motif established in the introduction, although this was not obvious to me. Overall the piece sounds rather like a short suite of music from a 1950s film.
Following the Fourth Symphony of 1949 Braga Santos journeyed to Italy to familiarise himself with new compositional trends and throughout the 1950s he began to incorporate these into some of his own music, abandoning the traditional symphonic form for a while and focusing on shorter works – which included the Variations on an Alentejo Theme and the Concerto for Strings. Several of the works on the present disc come from this period, although they seem to me to exhibit little evidence of the prevailing trends of the time or any attempts to follow them.
In 1952, Braga Santos wrote an opera, Viver ou Morrer (“To Live or To Die”) for Portugese Radio. The Prelude to this is more like a symphonic poem than an operatic overture. It starts with a lament (again reminiscent of early Vaughan Williams), intended to portray a battlefield strewn with dead bodies, and proceeds in waves of anguish that build up to a climax, eventually dying away.
The booklet notes tell us that the following four short, independent miniatures from the 1950s are for reduced orchestra, although it is difficult to tell that from the orchestral sound - which doesn’t sound notably reduced. The composer did not intend the pieces to be grouped and played in sequence but, arranged in chronological order (as they are here), they make an effective, if not particularly well contrasted, short suite. The works have something of the character of British light music of the period – think Ronald Binge, Robert Farnon, Ernest Tomlinson – but none has a descriptive theme.
From the 1960s onwards, the composer’s works became steadily more chromatic, with elements of atonality – albeit without anything of the New Viennese School about them. The Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, Sinfonietta and the Symphonic Sketches come from this second musical phase – as does the last work on the disc, the Piano Concerto, which dates from 1973.
This concerto makes a somewhat strange bed-fellow with the works that precede it on the disc. A virtuoso work for piano and orchestra, with a prominent part for percussion, it is really little more atonal than Bartok but is rather less memorable than any of the Bartok piano concertos. The first movement (Allegro) has a strong rhythmic impulse throughout, rather like a moto perpetuo, broadly alternating brief orchestral and longer piano/percussion episodes. It is a bit of a crash-fest after the previous works on the disc. The second movement (Largo) has no obvious time signature and provides a considerable contrast. It starts out very like a piece of Bartok night-music and gradually gets louder. The booklet note fairly describes it as “like an exercise of walking on ice with slippers”. The third movement (Allegro moderato) sets out on an orchestral introduction with a curious tutti for the strings - the players hitting their instruments like drums, using their bare hands. This leads to a piano theme reminiscent of that from the third movement of Rawsthorne’s First Piano Concerto, followed by rather percussive and noisy sections which do not seem to develop the theme. Sadly, the theme returns only once and then disappears. The music ends on a “glorious D major chord” somewhat distant from the opening.
As one might expect from a distinguished orchestra, a very capable soloist and a conductor who was a personal friend of the composer, performances are pretty well beyond reproach. Fortunately, all the recordings are also excellent - clear and well-balanced. Whilst the present disc contains no works of real significance in Braga Santos’s output, it can be welcomed as a splendidly performed and recorded miscellany that usefully mops up some rarities from both main phases of the composer’s career.
Incidentally, Rob Barnett has already provided reviews for most of the early CD recordings of the works of Braga Santos and the interested reader is strongly advised to see what he has to say.
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