Joly Braga Santos was Portugal’s greatest 2oth century composer, and virtually everything he wrote is worth acquiring. Stylistically he started out as a disciple of folk-inspired, modal/romantic composers such as Vaughan Williams and Respighi, and wound up squarely in the avant-garde. The amazing thing is that he retained his individually at all times, even when writing atonal, expressionist pieces such as the Variations for Orchestra (first sound clip). The key in all cases is his handling of the orchestra: the use of rhythmic ostinatos, the woodwind writing, his love of vivid colors often achieved through astonishingly economical means.
Aside from the late Variations (1976), this disc contains a series of works coveringRead more Braga Santos’ entire career, in all of the idioms in which he worked. Earliest is the Elegy in memory of Liszt pupil and famous pianist José Vianna da Motta, a brief and touching slow movement tinged with modal melody. Next up is the Symphonic Overture No. 3 (1954), one of his characteristic mixtures of classical construction and folk-inflected melodies (second sound clip). This lovely work, which as been recorded at least once previously, whets the appetite for its companion pieces.
Braga Santos dismissed the folk music-based ballet Alfama (1956) as fluff that he undertook for the money, but the suite arranged by conductor, composer, and friend Álvaro Cassuto reveals the piece as appealingly tuneful and well-crafted, despite a certain fluffy over-emphasis on rhythmic tambourine parts and other ballet percussion paraphernalia. The Three Symphonic Sketches stand somewhere between the Overture and the Variations. They are truly sketches–short, punchy, and characterful–written in a harmonic idiom that’s quite tonal but saturated with appealingly spicy dissonance.
Álvaro Cassuto, as other discs in this series prove, was not just Braga Santos’ friend. He is an ideal exponent of this music. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra accommodates the widely varying range of expression with evident enthusiasm and confident virtuosity. As with most productions from this source, Naxos’ engineering is excellent. This deserves your attention.