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José VIANA DA MOTTA (1868 – 1948)
À Pátria – Sinfonia Op.13 (1895) [43:23]
Inês de Castro (1886) [13:27]
Chulo do Douro (orch. Frederico de Freitas) [2:12]
Três improvisos sobre motivos populares portugueses [3:55]
Vito (orch. unknown, rev. Álvaro Cassuto) [4:25]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Álvaro Cassuto
rec. The Priory, Liverpool, 7-8 April 2015
NAXOS 8.573495 [67:23]

José Viana da Motta (here spelt 'Mota') was an important figure in the history of contemporary Portuguese music. His significance was two-fold. He was a composer, although he ceased to compose quite early because he was clearly not in tune with certain then current musical trends. He was also a pedagogue who taught a number of Portuguese composers such as Fernando Lopes-Graça. He left his mark on others including Joly Braga Santos who composed his Elegy in memory of Vianna da Motta (1948) (review ~ review). His position within the history of Portuguese music also lies in the fact that his symphony À Pátria may be considered the first substantial Portuguese symphony. As Álvaro Cassuto rightly remarks, there is also a possible link with Bomtempo's Second Symphony (review ~ review ~ review) and Luis de Freitas Branco's First Symphony (1924) (review ~ review). Incidentally his complete output for piano and orchestra is featured in Hyperion's Romantic Concertos series (CDA 67163 - review review) and a selection of his music for solo piano can be heard on Marco Polo (review).  The Sinfonia has been recorded before (review)

Viana da Motta's symphony À Pátria, completed in 1895, is a substantial and ambitious work with a subliminal political programme. It was written in reaction to the controversial British Ultimatum of 1890 issued in response to Portugal's intention to rule over the territory between its colonies of Angola and Mozambique: nowadays encompassing Zambia and Zimbabwe. This historical information presented in my review has been shamelessly plundered from Cassuto's informative notes. Each movement of the symphony is inspired by quotations from Luis de Camões' epic poem The Lusiads although the work as a whole has a clear symphonic structure and thus avoids any hint of facile jingoism. The Allegro eroico opens with a powerful, striving theme that – to these ears at least – brings Elgar to mind. It unfolds as a large-scale sonata-form whose three main themes play an important part in many further developments. The ensuing slow movement Adagio molto is the finest thing in the symphony - truly inspired music. The writing is for divided strings - the second group playing with mutes. Mostly peaceful and meditative this builds up towards a passionate section by the full orchestra and then gives way to one of the most moving moments of the entire work, a warmly lyrical violin solo with delicate accompaniment. The third movement Vivace is a short Scherzo. This is based, we are told, on a variety of folk dances and songs. The last movement is rather complex and may superficially be experienced as the most descriptive one in the whole work. It falls into three linked sections Decadence - Fight – Resurgence. It opens with a slow and dark introduction which is partly based on a reminiscence from the first movement. The music develops until it reaches the Fight section leading later into the final apotheosis Resurgence. This comprises a series of variations on the two themes of the first movement and brings the symphony to its grand conclusion.

Stylistically the music is heavily indebted to the grand Romantic tradition and at times relies on a cyclic working-out of the material which tends to emphasise the truly symphonic character of most of the music. Another remarkable feature is the mastery of Viana da Motta's scoring, evident throughout the work but still more so in the searingly beautiful slow movement.

The overture or tone poem Inês de Castro is a fairly early work composed when the composer was only eighteen. It draws on the same dramatic background as Montherlant's La Reine morte and James MacMillan's eponymous opera. Viana da Motta casts the piece as a Lisztian tone-poem in which episodes happen in a kaleidoscopic manner without any attempt at symphonic structure. The young composer already displays an impressive orchestral mastery although the music is still redolent of what had been written elsewhere at the time.

The final items were originally for piano. They were orchestrated either by the composer or by other musicians. Três improvisos sobre motivos populares portugueses — quite a long title for a piece playing a little under four minutes — is the only work scored by the composer. This as well as the other two shorter pieces is inspired directly or not by Portuguese folklore. Chulo do Douro was orchestrated by Frederico de Freitas whereas Vito, a somewhat more substantial piece, is heard here in a scoring by an unknown composer and revised for this recording by Álvaro Cassuto.

Cassuto's championing of Portuguese music is wholehearted as many of his earlier recordings of works by Lopes-Graça, Joly Braga Santos and Luis de Freitas Branco have made clear. He secures superb readings of these works which deserve wider exposure. This is certainly the case with Viana da Motta's substantial and often beautiful symphony. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic prove a most sympathetic partner and deliver excellent readings of all these pieces. The recording is again very fine and Cassuto's notes informative as ever. A very fine release that may be safely recommended to anyone wanting to know more about Portuguese music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Hubert Culot



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