The Chamber Music of Braga Santos

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BRAGA SANTOS: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2. String Sextet* / Quarteto Lopes-Graça; *Leonor Braga Santos, vla; Irene Lima, cel / Toccata Classics 0207

Great Britain’s Toccata Classics label, like Spain’s IBS Classical, are adventurous companies who specialize in out-of-center classical repertoire. Naturally, the former stresses but is not limited to little-known British composers while the second focuses on modern Spanish composers.

In this instance, however (and of course there are others, like the music of Hans Winterberg), Toccata has cast its net further afield, in this case catching a Portuguese composer who, though he may indeed have been, as the notes claim, “one of the most important composers in the history of Portuguese music” (well, it’s written by his son…), is scarcely known in most Western countries. Interestingly, the extra viola in the String Sextet is played by Leonor Braga Santos, but his daughter.

The first string quartet, dating from 1945 when the composer was only 21 years old, is a fully mature piece written in the Stravinsky neo-classic style yet with his own sense of lyricism. He was quite obviously an apt pupil: the music shows a great command of the use of counter-voices, which in the first movement set up a sort of perpetuum mobile behind the lead violin and at times takes over the music as the first violinist joins in. It may not be purely Portuguese in terms of the thematic material, but it surely captures the spirit of that country’s indigenous folk/dance music.

The second movement, if anything, is even livelier than the first. Marked “Allegro con fuoco,” it has a sort of nervous energy about it that is highlighted by the strong but shifting syncopations. The jumpy theme is also developed very well. Naturally, the third movement is the “slow” one—it’s marked “Andante tranquillo”—yet there remains even here a forward “push” to the music, with the cello and viola playing fluttering, double-time figures beneath the two violins (sometimes the second violin joins them). Later on in the movement, Braga-Santos sets up a gently rocking barcarolle rhythm; then he switches gears to provide sharply-etched, dramatic string chords that interrupt a more lyrical flow, each one followed by a pause, before resuming the barcarolle feel with the first violin playing the melody against pizzicato strings. An excellent piece for a young composer. Almost predictably, the last movement, “Allegro molto energico,” returns us to young Braga Santos to his more explosive, rhythmic style, yet the second half features slower, gentler, more elegiac music for the finale.

It’s worth noting that his second string quartet, from 1957, is almost half as short as the first: 20:40 compared to 36:34, yet in many ways his style has not changed music, only his maturity in the creation and handling of his themes. This is, overall, a more thoughtful quartet, and I can appreciate the thought he put into it, yet this more cautious approach produces, ironically, more predictable music. Moreover, I didn’t get the sense that it said anything; much of the score seemed to me mere filler without as much substance as in the first quartet. Curiously, the second movement almost sounds more like American Indian music than Portuguese; it is redolent of the music of Edward MacDowell or Dvořák’s Indian Lament, and to be honest, it lacks imagination except for the sudden increase of tempo near the end of the second movement, where the cello suddenly pushes the beat like a jazz bassist as the other three strings accelerate. Even the peppy theme in the third movement—modal, and here sounding more Czech or Hungarian than Latin—almost sounds like a theme from the first quartet recycled.

We enter an entirely different world, however, with the 1986 String Sextet. This is a more atonal work, as were his Three Symphonic Sketches, his Sinfonietta and Requiem and his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. The notes indicate that this was how his style began to change in 1960, becoming increasingly chromatic and also “an expansion of existing techniques, which include accentuated chromaticism, atonal melodism, alternative ways of dividing the octave, intervallic motivic thinking, harmony based in superimposed fourths, and extremely varied and detailed modes of execution (attack, articulation, phrasing).” Thus it seems that expanding his use of outside tonality also freed up his musical imagination without his having to sacrifice his identity. The exciting second movement of this Sextet has all the energy of his earlier Quartets but is far less predictable in its musical direction, diversity of tempo shifts and richer development. Braga Santos, then, did not merely shift to an atonal style as Stravinsky did in 1954, but created a different musical identity.

Kind of a mixed review, then: the first string quartet and the sextet are excellent works for their time and place, but the second quartet just seemed to me as Braga Santos marking time. The performances, however, are bristling with energy and exceedingly well played.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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