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Joly BRAGA SANTOS (1924-1988)
String Quartet No.1 in D minor, Op.4 (1945) [36:24]
String Quartet No.2, Op.27 (1957) [20:40]
String Sextet, Op.65 (1986) [21:42]
Quarteto Lopes-Graça, with Leonor Braga Santos (viola) and Irene Lima (cello)
rec. 2017/18, Centro Cultural de Belém, Lisbon

Toccata has already released two volumes devoted to the chamber music of Fernando Lopes-Graça and now it’s the turn of Joly Braga Santos. Performed by the quartet that bears the former composer’s name one is assured of idiomatic and penetrating traversals of the first two quartets and the much later String Sextet.

The Quartet No.1 dates from 1945 and is a large-scale 36-minute piece full of rich cantilena and expressive breadth. The first movement is studded with March rhythms but also with an avian Lark Ascending role for the viola, the succeeding Scherzo full of crisp figures and zesty, irregular metres. The slow movement’s warm lyricism - and its modality - perhaps inevitably remind one of Vaughan Williams’s chamber music but it’s in the finale that the quartet reaches its zenith. Here, reminders of the Scherzo’s irregularities fuse with rarefied beauty, dynamism with confidence, that avian figure reprised in a moment of prelapsarian eloquence; innocence and melancholy. This invigorating and sensitive work was an auspicious start for the 21-year Portuguese composer.

If the First Quartet touches on VW and, in places, perhaps, Bartók the Quartet No.2 of 1957 is, if anything, even more receptive to direct folkloric influence. Its opening elegiac largo flows into melodic richness, full of incident and full, once again, of zest. After the rather ecclesiastical-sounding piety of the opening of the central slow movement rustic figures irradiate the music with joyful vitality and Bartók-inspired dance patterns drive on the fiery finale after an initial Tallis-like solemnity. The direction in all three movements from reflectiveness to aliveness is a fixture of Braga Santos’ writing in his quartets.

Two years before his death he completed a String Sextet that reflects a rather different aesthetic though one that still deeply reveals his preoccupations and musical means. His ability to spin long-breathed melodies is unabated, but there is an expansion of sonority and verticality of expression, and a powerfully urgent sensibility at work. His use of textures, metres and harmonies all reveal his development and if the result is not as verdant and as free-spirited as the much earlier String Quartets the result represents nonetheless an amalgam of his experiences and a late statement of intent. One of the violists in this recording is the same musician who performed at the work’s posthumous 1989 première, the composer’s daughter, Leonor Braga Santos. Both she and cellist Paulo Gaio Lima, who also played at that première, but not in this Toccata disc, participated in a recording of this work on the PortugalSom label.

This is an excellent start to another series from this exploratory label. The performances are as idiomatic and generous as one could hope for and the notes finely argued. If the recording is rather hard-sounding, I suggest a bit of treble taming (if possible). In any case, I can’t really imagine anyone impervious to Braga-Santos’s warmth and wisdom.

Jonathan Woolf

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