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Raymond Tuttle
Fanfare, January 2009

Tremendous! Portugal is not as famous as its neighbor Spain for producing great classical composers, but that doesn’t mean that none exist. In the past several months I’ve become acquainted with two: Luís de Freitas Branco (1890–1955) and his pupil Joly Braga Santos (1924–1988). I’ve acquired a handful of discs containing their music, and I have yet to be even faintly disappointed with any of them. This particular CD won a Cannes Classical Award in 2004.

Conductor Cassuto’s notes (which also appear in a Wikipedia article about the composer) state that Braga Santos wanted, in his own words, “to contribute toward a Latin symphonism and to react against the predominant tendency, of the generation that preceded me, to reject monumentalism in music.” Indeed, Braga Santos is unafraid of making a Big Statement. The Fourth Symphony ends with a heart-swelling Epilogue in the style of a chorale, which he called a “Hymn to Youth.” In its own way, it is just as effective as Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” or the corresponding theme in the last movement of Brahms’s First Symphony. In fact, Braga Santos at one point added a chorus to this closing section of the Symphony, and I believe that version has been recorded. (Cassuto dislikes that version, however, claiming that it “banalizes the originality of Braga Santos’s original concept.”)

I don’t mean to suggest that Braga Santos’s Fourth Symphony sounds like Beethoven and Brahms, however. The first movement reminds me of both Sibelius and, at a few odd points, Bruckner. The second suggests Vaughan Williams (the “London” Symphony, perhaps), the third, Sibelius again, and the finale Copland or Roy Harris. His teacher’s influence is obvious too, and there are hints of Villa-Lobos. At the same time, these suggestions are subtle, and at no point does the music sound derivative to me. I would guess that Braga Santos had very big ears and was able to incorporate a wide variety of musical influences, process them internally, and make something uniquely his own out of them. The language is tonal, and this music is not difficult to comprehend and enjoy, but neither is it simple-minded or pandering. The symphony takes the listener from doubt and struggle, leading him confidently into an emotional territory dominated by the warmth and brilliant light of the sun. It’s “feel good” music, to be sure.

The same holds true for the Symphonic Variations, which, in addition to being attractive and ultimately stirring, would not be out of place as a symphonic movement, so cleverly are they assembled. Alentejo, by the way, is a rural region in southern Portugal. In spite of the statement by the composer that I quoted in the second paragraph, neither of these works seems particularly nationalistic to me; there is little obvious “local color” such as one hears in the music of Freitas Branco’s and Braga Santos’s Spanish contemporaries. On the other hand, perhaps I simply don’t know enough about Portuguese culture to hear it! At any rate, these two works are international in their appeal.

Cassuto’s booklet notes suggest that he is intimately acquainted with Braga Santos’s music, and at no point do the performances suggest otherwise. (I note that he is recording a Freitas Branco cycle for Naxos, and this marco polo CD, and others in this series, are likely to reappear on Naxos at some point.) The Irish orchestra plays idiomatically and with polish, and the engineers have done their part to make friends for this music as well. I have nothing with which to compare these performances, but they seem very solid to me.

Again, as I said at the start of this review, “Tremendous!”

Martin Anderson
International Record Review, December 2003

"Cassuto's cycle has taken him to a variety of orchestras, all producing excellent results, and Marco Polo's various engineers have presented it in fine sound. The series as a whole has moved Braga Santos from the periphery of twentieth-century music rather closer to the centre, his modal means associating him with Vaughan Williams and his busy inner parts with Moeran. One hopes the acclaim will have persuaded Marco Polo to send Cassuto back to record more of the Portuguese symphonic repertoire. In the meantime, I recommend this release as heartily as all its predecessors."

Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, November 2003

I knew what to expect from [Braga Santos] Fourth Symphony—a magnificent command of orchestral color, structural finesse, a turn for memorable melody, a life-affirming philosophy… © 2003 Fanfare Read complete review on Fanfare

Guy Rickards
Gramophone, January 2003

"The NSOI give a splendid account of themselves in this richly affirmative music. Tim Handley's sound is full and natural. Recommended with enthusiasm.

David Hurwitz, September 2002

The symphony’s four well-balanced movements last more than 50 minutes, making this piece the composer’s longest and grandest orchestral work in any form, and it all culminates in a finale whose allegro contains 10 of the most purely exhilarating minutes of orchestral writing that you will ever hear. In his excellent notes to this recording, conductor Cassuto expresses his disappointment that Santos gradually abandoned this appealing idiom after completing this symphony in 1951 and turned to more avant-garde musical explorations. Many music lovers will agree, but it’s difficult to see what Santos could have done after this stunning work but repeat himself, however attractively, and I certainly would not want to be without the Fifth Symphony of 1965, one of the most astonishing and original of 20th century masterpieces in the medium.

In any event, Cassuto coaxes from his Irish players a performance of boundless energy and excitement. The allegro sections of both outer movements really rip, and Marco Polo has managed spectacular sonics: just listen to the way the recording captures Cassuto’s steady build-up of the second movement’s climactic march, from the soft thud of the bass drum through to its glowingly rich-textured brass summit. The same observations hold true for the Symphonic Variations, one of the most purely beautiful pieces of music in any medium (Santos obviously had an eye on the “Sunrise” from Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe in the work’s first section). Once again, in playing the game of reminiscences it’s easy to ignore the composer’s originality, but the synthesis that he achieves in this music is wholly personal. This performance of the Fourth Symphony in particular, effectively its CD premiere, must be accounted an event of the first magnitude, not to be missed.

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