Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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JOLY BRAGA SANTOS (1924-88) Symphony No. 4 in e minor (1948)   'George Enescu' Choir Roumanian Radiotelevision SO/Silva Pereira Bucharest, November 1978 STRAUSS PORTUGALSOM SP4059 [47:31]

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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.


Richard Adams

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 Symphony."

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 world.

The strongest recommendation.


Rob Barnett


The prices are: UK pounds- 6 and US dollars -10 (freight not included).

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Strauss, S.A.
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orch score and parts available from Sociedade Portuguesa de Auotores
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Richard Adams

Rob Barnett

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