Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Greatest 20th Century Symphonists You've Never Heard Of. Post 3: Joly Braga Santos

Post 1: Kurt Atterberg
Post 2: Cornelis Dopper

For this post, we have Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988).
Today we have a Portuguese composer: again, a major western European country that somehow gets overlooked in the musical sweepstakes. Aren't the Romance countries supposed to be the most musical? Spain has major composers, and has inspired more great tourist music by foreigners than any other country. France is one of the top three of all countries in music, and Italy, well, it's numero uno. Even Romania has one famous composer, George Enescu, who, alas, was not a particularly notable symphonist, but who did write this.

But Portugal? It has Joly Braga Santos, who ought to be heard of, but isn't. He lived a quiet life as a composer and conductor. (Portuguese names, by the way, work differently from Spanish ones, and though he is often alphabetized under B, properly he belongs under S.) JBS, as I'll call him to be completely ambiguous about it, followed an unusual path for a Romantic-country composer. He started out aiming to write big, heavy, serious symphonies in a mode more usual among Germanic and Slavic composers, and he succeeded awesomely. He wrote six symphonies altogether, the first four in a quick lump in the late 1940s. Then, like Atterberg, he took a 15-year break from the symphony. By the time he returned, unfortunately, like many composers at that time, he had been infected with the modernist virus, and his music had lost its savor.

But we still have the first four, all of which are mature works despite the composer's tender age, and which are real symphonies with real heft like Atterberg's. The longest, heftiest, and possibly best of them is the Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 16 (1950), and here it is in all its glory:

(Unfortunately this copy cuts off all four movements just before the end. Extremely irritating, but it's the only copy currently available with otherwise good sound.)

JBS's symphonies, particularly this one, sound a lot like Bruckner and Sibelius, and, if you want to win my favor, those are good composers to sound like. They also display a sound quality uniquely his own, and that is also a good thing.

The large first movement of the Fourth is a sonata form beginning with a slow Lento introduction (much of this is particularly Brucknerian) that ramps up to Allegro con fuoco starting at 3:22, with the jagged main theme coming in at 3:44, a similar second theme at 4:38, and the development at 5:48. After a number of episodes, the true recapitulation starts to lurk with a quiet key change at 9:10 and finally hits at 10:11.

The equally large-scale Andante slow movement (13:29) has a solemn main theme (13:48). A gentler second section (16:15) builds up into a strikingly Sibelian climax (starting at 17:32 and getting near the top after 18:21), which, after subsiding, pays off with a third section featuring one of JBS's most characteristic melodies (19:20), and then mutates back into the main theme (22:55) and closes sounding a little like Shostakovich (24:32).

The scherzo, Allegro tranquillo, starts off with string pizzicato runs and an oboe theme that sound really like Sibelius (25:03, even more at 26:34) and then suddenly gives a premonition of Malcolm Arnold (25:22) before reassuring us that it's nobody but JBS (25:58). Rhythmic modulations are unusual in music, but the brass modulates from 3/4 into the 5/4 rhythm of the trio section at 28:00, with another ideal JBS melody (28:15). The scherzo returns (29:50), then the trio (32:55), and a scherzo-based coda (34:54).

The finale is the biggest, most complex, and most distinctively JBS, of the movements. This is the part of the symphony you should listen to if you try nothing else. It starts with another Lento slow introduction (35:43). Again there's a ramping up (37:28) to a jolly Allegro con brio which hits with a bang at 38:08, presenting a cheerful theme derived from material in the introduction. The second theme, again prepared for rhythmically by the brass, is an irregular "bear dance" (39:42). The music starts to move into a closing section (40:42) and reaches a brief development (again uncannily pre-channeling Malcolm Arnold for a bit) at 42:00. The main themes return at 43:27 and 44:48.

Then, after what you probably thought was the final climax, comes something entirely new, an Epilogue (46:36) with an unforgettably grand theme that JBS apparently intended as his equivalent of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" (47:02). It starts off in the low brass and then is taken up by more and more of the orchestra as it keeps repeating until the true coda (50:58). Wowza.

If there's one other movement from a JBS symphony that I'd most recommend, it's the scherzo from his Second. Click on this and hear a bustling Allegretto pastorale that's both pure JBS and uncannily reminiscent of RVW.

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