Symphonic Variations on a popular song from the Alentejo
National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland
Recorded June 2001, RTE Concert Hall, Dublin
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: September 2002
CD No: MARCO POLO 8.225233
Having not been entirely snared into Marco Polo’s Santos series, this release makes one want to backtrack.
Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988), Lisbon born and deceased, wrote the open-air, high-flying variations in 1951; colourful and vibrant, lively and melodious, deftly orchestrated and seamlessly constructed. It’s a lovely piece with some magical moments if a tad overblown in places.
Álvaro Cassuto’s booklet note informs that Santos’s compositional methods changed in 1960 to something more post-war modernist – the Fourth Symphony just pre-dates this division and contributes to the “Latin symphonism” that Santos aspired to. This locale is not particularly noticeable in the folksong-derived, rural-flavour variations that suggest an English composer from the Vaughan Williams camp. The symphony is more Mediterranean, a Respighian mix of the sacred and secular.
Lasting 53 minutes in this performance, the Fourth Symphony is generously laid out to a classical grounplan. A strong sense of atmosphere, both of the cloister and the great outdoors, imbues the piece, one that expands distinct motifs with clear-cut, varied orchestration. Harmonic richness and expressional aspiration inform the cinematic first movement, while figuration reminding of Rachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead opens the second movement ’Andante’, a nocturnal march with beautiful reflective episodes albeit rather relentless attempts at majesty.
The ’Allegro tranquillo’ scherzo initially paints Auvergne-type sheep and shepherds, the lightly tripping countenance reminds of Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony, the harmonies Hispanic, the tunes carefree. The final and longest movement begins pregnant with anticipation before continuing the first movement’s optimistic journey; a chorale-like melody forms the summatory coda. Santos’s honesty and a certain naivety remind of George Lloyd.
The performances are a testimony to Cassuto’s commitment and Santos’s grateful writing; the recording quality is excellent.