One reason I buy so many discs of unfamiliar music is that I hope to discover
a new voice that will overwhelm me as did the music of Bax, Szymanowski or
Dutilleux upon first hearing. Sadly, those life-altering discoveries are
few and far between but the search does occasionally turn up some very enjoyable
music. A good example would be the music of the Portuguese composer Joly
Braga Santos whose Fourth Symphony has been released on the Strauss Portugalsom
label. I suspect Santos will be a name new even for the most adventurous
of collectors. The CD liner notes tell us Santos was the best of his generation
of Portuguese composers who came to prominence in the 1940s. By prominence,
I assume the writer means Portugal for there is little about this music that
would have attracted much outside attention. The compositional style is
reminiscent of Aaron Copland's populist works from the same period although
Santos music isn't nearly as fresh or original. Santos writes memorable tunes,
especially those spiced with Latin color, but I have doubts about his ability
to create convincing symphonic forms. This symphony rambles on, especially
in the outer movements, and too often it sounds like a series of likable
ideas strung together without any subsequent development of those ideas.
Some of the material too closely resembles that of other works such as the
opening of the second movement Andante which practically copies the opening
of Rachmaninoff's Isle of the Dead verbatim and you may hear Sibelius' First
Symphony in the Scherzo. I know that the greatest of composers lift from
each other but here the borrowings are too close to their original source
and I found that distracting.
So is this symphony worth hearing? I'd say it is. Much of the score has an
appealing vitality and I was humming many of its tunes after I had heard
the work a few times. It is beautifully scored and there are several bravura
passages for brass that are thrilling even if the impact is reduced due to
some unsteady playing by the Roumanian RadioTelevision Symphony Orchestra's
brass players. Otherwise the orchestra in this 1978 recording does a commendable
job and Silva Pereira's conducting sounds totally sympathetic. This symphony
ends in a choral Hymn to Youth with text by Vasconcelos Sobral. I'm not sure
this epilogue (as it is called) fits with the rest of the symphony but it
does lead to a very grand conclusion. I enjoyed this recording enough to
be curious about Santos' other works. From what I can tell by reading the
liner notes, he composed two more symphonies over a 20 year span. If he was
able to tighten his structures a little and rely less on other composer's
works for inspiration, than I suspect his later works would be very rewarding
indeed. Time to do more exploring.
And another view from Rob Barnett
You must hear this symphony - a positive and life-endorsing hymn to joy.
But first some words of biographical introduction.
Braga Santos was a native of Lisbon and remained associated with the city
throughout his life. He attended the Lisbon Conservatory and aspired to a
career as a professional violinist. His time there brought him into contact
with the composer Luis de Freitas Branco who was his composition tutor. According
to the conductor Alvaro Cassuto: "His music can be viewed mainly as a fusion
of European styles, particularly that of Western Europe. His unique gifts
demonstrate themselves by the fact that the first four symphonies came between
the age of 22 and 27, and were immediately performed by the Portuguese Radio
At the age of 29 he studied conducting with Hermann Scherchen in Austria
and it was as a conductor that he made his way in the world. Conducting took
over his life to such an extent that composition largely ceased. In 1965
he returned to the creative art with the Fifth Symphony and a new idiom which
was positively modern largely leaving behind the accessible and life-enhancing
style of the first four symphonies.
The present symphony is in four movements the first of which (lento - allegro
con fuoco) is orchestrally stunning, blending the voices of Vaughan Williams
(a very positive and recurrent influence), Bruckner (especially No. 4 in
the opening 3 minutes), Hanson and even Frank Bridge's The Sea. The
tranquil andante rises in a torment of string writing to a climax that takes
something from Rózsa's ultra-romantic music for El Cid and
RVW's Tallis Fantasia. The climax is one of towering and tolling power.
The third movement offers, among many attractions, mellifluous harp runs,
piercing trumpet calls, an impressionist melos recalling Debussy's La
Mer and a winding and insistent beauty of a folk-tune. The finale is
absolutely glorious with chattering trumpets (the Roumanian orchestra's players
clearly challenged by what they are called on to do), Sibelian woodwind,
a contrasting theme which sounds as if it might belong in the finale of
Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 1, a punchy woodwind rhythmical figure that sounds
uncannily like the start of Moeran's G minor symphony and occasionally rather
like the much underestimated symphony by Kodaly. I also remembered the
4th symphony of Bohuslav Martinu, especially in its closing pages.
There is a naïve but intoxicating hymn to youth sung in fervent Russian
style by the Roumanian choir. The singing closes the piece in a dazed and
dazzling gaze into the perpetual sunrise of youth.
Notes are by Maria Helena de Freitas and are in Portuguese and English. The
text of the brief paean to youth is printed in both Portuguese and English
although (sadly) not side by side.
Anyone at all warming to the works of Howard Hanson, Randall Thomson, Douglas
Lilburn, Vaughan Williams or George Lloyd must hear this CD.
In terms of playing time a disc running just short of three-quarters of an
hour may seem of contentious value. Be reassured; this is a gorgeous symphony.
Once heard, it will lurk in your 'singing in the bath' repertoire and flood
back from your memory from time to time leaving you puzzled (and affronted)
as to why it is not played in concert halls and on radio stations around
The strongest recommendation.
The prices are: UK pounds- 6 and US dollars -10 (freight not included).
The transport costs are :
For UK----- 1 or 2 CDs ------UK£1.60; 3 CDs ----£2.5
For USA---- 1 or 2 CDs-----US$3.50 ; 3 CDs --- $5.5
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orch score and parts available from Sociedade Portuguesa de Auotores
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