About this Recording
8.572817 - LOPES-GRACA, F.: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (Nebolsin, Orquestra Sinfonica do Porto - Casa da Musica, Bamert)

Fernando Lopes-Graça (1906–1994)
Piano Concertos Nos 1 and 2


Fernando Lopes-Graça is one of the most significant figures in Portuguese music of the twentieth century. His artistic trajectory, while highly personal, is also very cosmopolitan. His work was not only rooted in the folkmusic of his native Portugal, but in his experience working with folk-musicians, collecting their songs, and in teaching amateurs, notably his work with the choir of the Academia de Amadores de Música in Lisbon. As with Bartók, however, his use of folk-music, and his profound knowledge of it, was put to very specific ends, not all of which corresponded with the expectations of the audiences of the time.

Almost alone amongst Portuguese composers of this period, Lopes-Graça made an open stand against the regime, and he made no secret of his communist sympathies. He was forbidden on this account from teaching at the Conservatory in Lisbon, and was even imprisoned at one point for his political views. He was a pupil of both Luís de Freitas Branco and the renowned pianist-composer José Vianna da Motta, as well as of the influential priest-teacher Tomás Borba, and in 1937 went to Paris at his own expense to study with Charles Koechlin. His mature voice had already begun to appear as early as the Variações sobre um tema popular português of 1927; by the time he returned to Portugal in 1939, his work was characterized by the extensive employment of percussive rhythmic writing, frequent use of polyrhythm and a kind of diatonic dissonance reminiscent, once again, of Bartók.

Lopes-Graça’s highly unsentimental orientation towards Portuguese folk-music was also much in evidence by this time. He was striving, like his compatriots Freitas Branco and, later, Joly Braga Santos, after a genuinely Latin style of modernism, but a modernism that would also be very personal. There is an originality in his harmonic thinking and his melodic procedures, fed by his very particular, objective reaction to Portuguese folkmusic, that finds some affinity with neo-realist movements in the other arts in Portugal, for example, the work of the painter Júlio Pomar (b.1926) or the poet Miguel Torga (1907–1995). In addition to this, Lopes-Graça was a truly gifted orchestrator. This, in combination with his remarkable melodic imagination meant that even in such an essentially atonal work as the Concerto da Camara col Violoncello Obbligato, Op 167 (1966), written for Rostropovich, the very beautiful melodic strand of the solo cello remains in the mind once the work has finished quite as much as the sparkling orchestral writing.

The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No 1 was written in 1940, and dedicated to the same José Vianna da Motta whose “folky nationalism” the composer would later proclaim to have been overtaken by the “essential nationalism” of composers such as Frederico de Freitas, Joly Braga Santos and Lopes-Graça himself. The work in fact won the Vianna da Motta Prize, and was first performed in 1941 by Leopoldo Queroll and the National Radio Symphony Orchestra under Pedro de Freitas Branco in the Teatro Nacional de Sao Carlos.

The first movement, Allegro moderato, is a bithematic sonata form, opening with a brilliant, heraldic, somewhat Bartókian fanfare that alternates with a more ruminative atmosphere—a Meno mosso, suggestive of the ruminative Iberian quality of some of Falla’s music. But listing parallels, and much less influences, does no justice to the subtlety and mastery of Lopes-Graça’s voice, which is entirely his own. Andante is the marking for the second movement, a landscape, again quintessentially Iberian, the mysterious quality of its atmosphere conjured up by the composer’s habitual mastery of the orchestra. The gently undulating opening, coloured by celesta and harp, gives way to an anguished building-up of intensity that once more dies away: Lopes Graça was ever the master of conjuring up an entire world of colour in a matter of seconds. The final minutes of the movement are nostalgically reflective, probably amongst the most conventionally “romantic” of the composer’s work of this period.

Characteristic of the third and final movement, another bithematic sonata form, is its clarity of line and transparency of texture, phenomena which certainly show not only the influence of Portuguese folk-music but which also clearly suggest the sonatas of Scarlatti, famously resident in Lisbon during the years 1720–28, and possibly also the music of the Portuguese Carlos Seixas (1704–1742). Indeed, the composer’s library, now housed at the Museu da Música Portuguesa in Estoril, contains copies of works by both these composers, including a set of five sonatas edited by Bartók and published in Budapest in 1921. This toccata-like writing is couched in a bittersweet harmonic language, which nevertheless conveys an airy cheerfulness.

Though it dates initially from 1950, a second version of the Concerto No 2 was made two years afterwards (though the copyright date on the composer’s manuscript is 1954), and finally revised in 1971. It bears the dedication “A Maria Antoinette Levèque de Freitas Branco”, and it was the dedicatee that gave the first performance in July 1953, accompanied by the Portuguese Symphony Orchestra under Pedro de Freitas Branco, at the Pavilhao dos Desportos in Lisbon. It is altogether darker in tone and more sombre than the first concerto. The first movement opens menacingly with low strings and percussion, and the piano enters playing in its lowest register. The harmony subsequently becomes lusher, though still characteristically ambiguous, and a heavy, threatening atmosphere builds up in successive dark waves of sound, the brass playing a particularly important role, before all returns to blackness.

The evanescent, mystical second movement, Andante con moto, is entitled Evocação de Ravel, and carries the indication Cantabile, sempre un poco rubato. The piano’s unforgettable opening theme is in 5/4 time; it is gradually reinforced by the entry of the strings, playing with mutes. The mutes are gradually discarded—poco a poco via sordini—and the tension increases, though the movement never quite reaches a conclusion. The stasis which might apparently signal the music’s end instead dissolves into an strange, evocative ghost of a waltz for the piano soloist.

Once more the influence of the Iberian baroque predominates in the final movement, a turbulent, intermittently joyous conception marked Vivo, quasi cadenza. The sprightly toccata-like writing with which it begins is contrasted with some far darker episodes, giving the whole movement, in spite of its abrupt ending, an enigmatic, yearning quality.

Ivan Moody

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