About this Recording
8.225186 - BRAGA SANTOS: Sinfonietta for Strings / Violin Concerto

Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988)
Music for Strings

Joly Braga Santos was born in 1924 in Lisbon, where he died in 1988, at the height of his musical creativity. Although he composed only six symphonies, he was undoubtedly the leading Portuguese symphonist of the century and, in a way, of all time, considering that the symphonic output of Portuguese composers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is not significant. Apart from an innate sense for good orchestration, his musical language is based on a strong musical architecture as well as drama, with generous melodic lines and a natural instinct for structural development as well as formal coherence. In his own words, he wanted to contribute “toward a Latin symphonism and to react against the predominant tendency, of the generation that preceded me, to reject monumentalism in music”.

Having studied the violin and composition at the Conservatory in Lisbon, Joly Braga Santos became a disciple of Luis de Freitas Branco (1980-1955), the leading Portuguese composer of the preceding generation. Through the influence of his mentor, he opted, first, for a modal writing which he would eventually abandon in favour of a free chromaticism which is nevertheless based on tonal writing. Although he was not particularly interested in Portuguese folklore, studying and composing at the country home of his mentor, in the rural south of Portugal, the Aleutejo, he willingly accepted the influence of local folk-songs.

The four works for strings here included reflect clearly enough the musical evolution of Braga Santos. For this reason the works follow the chronological order of their composition: Concerto in D (1951), Sinfonietta (1963), Concertante Variations (1967) and Double Concerto for Violin and Cello (1968). These compositions give us an idea of the variety and richness of the works Braga Santos. Indeed, each of these, though composed for the same instrumental ensemble, strings, has its own characteristic, both stylistically as well as instrumentally. The coherence and inter-relation between the form and the harmonic idiom as well as of the use of counterpoint are quite obvious. Thus, the Concerto in D has an extremely traditional form which is also reflected in its harmonic idiom and contrapuntal writing: the Sinfonietta for 12 solo strings, is formally condensed as a result of the reduced dimension of the orchestra; the Concertante Variations, with its high harmonic and contrapuntal density, is consequently divided into a series of short sections: finally, the Double Concerto, written for two solo instruments with orchestral accompaniment, follows basically the traditional concerto form.

The Concerto in D is dedicated to the Academy of Chamber Instruments of the Portuguese Radio, which gave the work its world première. The modal writing (Phrygian mode) is immediately apparent in the initial theme, which is the basis for the slow introduction, marked Largamente maestoso. One also notices, following the opening tutti, another characteristic of Braga Santos’ writing: the use of instrumental solos, in this case, the solo violin, viola and cello, contrasting with the tutti. The Allegro which follows is based on two themes: the first one, with an incisive rhythm, is like a fast version of the initial theme, while the second one, lyrical in character, is played by the violins with the cellos and basses in imitation. The movement follows the traditional sonata form of exposition, development, recapitulation and coda. The second movement, slow, with the direction Adagio non troppo, also tripartite in structure, with the central section in marked contrast, is one of the most expressive movements by Braga Santos. It is certainly not a coincidence that I conducted it at the request of the composer’s widow during the Mass at the funeral of Braga Santos in 1988. The third movement, Allegro ben marcato, has the character of a popular dance in 514. It is a rondo with a coda in triple metre.

The Sinfonietta for string orchestra, composed in 1963, is dedicated to Alvaro Cassuto and the Gulbenkian Chamber Orchestra. I conducted its première in 1963. Scored for twelve solo strings, four first and three second violins, two violas, two cellos and one double bass, the work has three movements. The first of these has a slow introduction, marked Adagio, in which the first solo violin plays a leading role immediately after the initial unison. Following freely sonata form, although without a recapitulation, the Allegro has a first theme played by the strings in which the twelve solo instruments are treated like an orchestral tutti, while the second theme, influenced by Portuguese folk-music, is lyrical, being entrusted to two solo violins with a pizzicato accompaniment by the remaining strings. The second movement Adagio has an introduction in which Braga Santos explores tone colours which, to a certain extent, reflect the influence of the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg and his disciples Alban Berg and Anton Webern. The central part of the movement is a long melodic line in the first violins in unison. The coda of this movement is performed by the solo violin with an accompaniment of sustained notes by the remaining eleven players, each one of whom plays a different note. In the last bars, Braga Santos shows clearly that he did not eschew the influence of tone clusters of the avant-garde of the 1960s. The third movement, with the direction Allegro ben marcato, ma non troppo, is in free sonata form. The first theme has an incisive character while the second lyrical theme is played by four solo instruments, two violins, one viola and one cello. Before the final coda, the movement is interrupted by a Largo in which the first solo violin is accompanied by the remaining strings in a fashion which is similar to that of the coda of the second movement.

As the title indicates, the Concertante Variations for string orchestra and harp is a series of variations in which different instruments, the section leaders of the first and second violins, of the violas and of the cellos as well as the harp, play a “concertante” or soloistic rôle. Its texture is extremely dense as a result of an enormous wealth of contrapuntal writing. It has one movement only, basically an Adagio slow movement with a fast middle section, marked Più mosso, and a fast coda, Mosso. In the original score there is no indication as to which is the theme and which are the variations. We can, however, distinguish the following sections:

a) A short fortissimo introduction for all the strings together;
b) A longer section, with solos for violin and viola in counterpoint with their sections of the orchestra, accompanied by the remaining strings as well as by the harp, which starts pianissimo and ends fortissimo;
c) A rhythmic section, initiated by the second violins, which also starts pianissimo and ends fortissimo;
d) A section based on a regular rhythm of the double basses, with numerous solos in the remaining strings, which is kept pianissimo;
e) A Molto tranquillo initiated by the solo viola which is imitated by the cello and, later, by the first solo violin, ending with a crescendo leading to the following section;
f) A Più mosso, fortissimo, with the highly incisive melodic part in the first violins;
g) A slow section, Largo, with the harp as soloist, in which the motif of section e) returns in the first solo violin and viola;
h) A coda, Mosso, initiated by the cellos and basses, in an 818 rhythm, 318 + 318 + 2/8, with which the movement ends in an accelerando, fortissimo.

The Concerto for violin, cello, string orchestra and harp has three movements, Largo, Allegro and Adagio. The first movement of these has an initial section with the violin and cello as soloists, starting pianissimo and leading to a fortissimo central part for strings without harp. The movement ends pianissimo, again with the soloists, but this time with the cellos and basses in a steady rhythmic accompaniment. The second movement starts with the pizzicato strings and has basically a 5/8 rhythm. It ends in a brilliant fortissimo crescendo. The third movement starts and ends pianissimo, with a central part which is rhythmically incisive, cast in a contrasting orchestral tutti, which is also fortissimo.

Álvaro Cassuto

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