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Fernando LOPES-GRAÇA (1906-1994)
Quatro cantos do Natal (Four Christmas Songs), Op. 97 (1955) [9:12]
Três Poemas de Adolfo Casais Monteiro, Op. 12 (1934) [5:08]
Tíz Magyar Népdal (Ten Hungarian Songs) Op. 87 (1954) [16:14]
Dois romances de Armindo Rodrigues, Op 47 (1946) [5:40]
Neuf Chansons populaires russes, Op. 66 (1950-51) [24:39]
As três Canções de Olívia (The Three Olivia Songs), Op. 20 (1935) [4:19]
Quatro novos cantos do Natal (Four New Christmas Songs) (c 1958) [10:10]
Susana Gaspar (soprano)
Cátia Moreso (mezzo-soprano)
Fernando Guimarães (tenor)
Nuno Vieira de Almeida (piano)
rec 2017, Culturgest, Grande Auditório, Lisbon
Texts and translations available online
NAXOS 8.579039 [75:45]

Four decades ago when my interest in art music (and records) was rapidly developing, Portugal was one of those European countries which seemed to have no contemporary composers represented at all in the Gramophone catalogues that existed at the time – the same seemed to be true of countries such as Belgium, Yugoslavia and Greece. While the map of Eastern Europe at least has been extensively rearranged, one wonders how much the Salazar dictatorship was responsible for this lack of dissemination from Portugal; certainly we now know that Lopes-Graça was the most important contemporary figure at the time, and that his passionate espousal of communism got him into hot water with the authorities on more than one occasion.

One is therefore profoundly grateful to Klaus Heymann and Naxos for introducing the music of Joly Braga-Santos, Luis de Freitas Branco and Lopes-Graça, in particular, to those of us in Northern Europe who for a long time lived virtually in ignorance of these important figures. It has been especially exciting to get to know Lopes-Graça’s superb Symphony and his sparkling Piano Concertos. While other labels (such as the ever-adventurous Toccata Classics) have since begun to explore the oeuvre of this fascinating figure, Naxos continue to lead the way and here present an overview of his contribution to the voice and piano song repertoire. There are seven cycles and thirty-five songs on this amply-filled disc; while they only encompass half of Lopes-Graça’s career (1934-58) they do present a pretty comprehensive picture of the range of his stylistic interests.

Broadly there are three types of work here: two rather beautiful sets of Christmas songs; two collections of folksongs from Eastern Europe and three very brief cycles that set the words of contemporary Portuguese poets. Vitor Moura’s notes (the English translation is a little stilted) identify the creative tensions that underpin Lopes-Graça’s contribution to the song genre, but they tell us little about the impulses behind the works themselves. While he felt compelled to preserve, record and harmonise Portuguese folksong throughout his life, he was additionally drawn to the attractions of contemporary music, not least to neo-classicism. This duality is reflected in the different types of song presented here. The disc has been very thoughtfully and symmetrically organised: it begins and ends with the two Christmas sets (the latter one was only recently unearthed); then interspersed among the three cycles of poetry settings are the two more substantial groups of Hungarian and Russian folksongs, consisting of ten and nine numbers respectively.

In terms of the Christmas sets, separated as they are by only a few years, there are marked differences. There is a purity, almost an innocence to the earlier songs, especially those which involve the soprano Susana Gaspar whose lovely voice seems most apt for much of this repertoire. Unusually, the workload is shared between all three singers in both of these cycles, so for example in the first set, the second song Vinde pastores (Come you shepherds) has the first two verses sung by the soprano, and the third by the mezzo Cátia Moreso, whereas the third Estando a Virgem (The Virgin was) alternates the soprano voice with the tenor of Fernando Guimarães. The simplicity of this first set is occasionally disarmed by the piquancy of the composer’s piano writing, which at times carries a Mompou-like mystery. The more recent set, however, is darker; the piano part is slightly more ambiguous – the vocal writing is even more adventurous, since the songs often involve two or even three voices singing in harmony. While the quality of the music is in little doubt, my concern is that these voices do not always blend well – there is a harder edge to both the mezzo and the tenor which sounds perfectly fine (and especially suits the sound of the Portuguese language) in the solo numbers but is more noticeably abrasive in the ensemble items. The third song in this later set however is especially interesting. Cantiga à Virgem (Song to the Virgin) is a setting of a medieval poem; the music is ancient and timeless, the accompaniment spare, and the singing of both females exquisite. The differences between these two sets perhaps amplify the stylistic tensions at the heart of this composer’s output.

Turning next to the three poetry cycles, two of these (the Monteiro poems, Op 12 and As três Canções de Olívia Op 20) date from early in Lopes-Graça’s career and reflect his engagement with the neo-classicism that dominated European contemporary music in the 1930s. Characterful as the short songs in these cycles are, the two slightly longer numbers on poems by Armindo Rodrigues demonstrate considerable development; there seems to be a greater appreciation of the sound of the Portuguese language and the word-setting is more sophisticated. Here Fernando Guimarães projects the texts superbly, reminding listeners that sung Portuguese can sound strikingly different from other Latin languages.

The gentle syncopations of Kertünk alatt gödröt ásna (Under our garden they dig a hole), the first of the Ten Hungarian Songs suggest that this cycle might be a rather literal adaptation of folksong and in the main this proves to be the case, although there is a hint of Bartókian modernity to the second number Jeruzsálem kapujában (At Jerusalem’s Gate). Enjoyable as these songs are, I am not convinced that Cátia Moreso is especially confident with the Hungarian language – while at times she adopts a wide vibrato which seems something of an ill-fit for what is essentially simple material. In the substantial Russian cycle (the texts are in French) the accompaniments seem more complex, while the vocal workload is shared between soprano and tenor. In the opening Moissonneurs (Reapers) Fernando Guimarães seems to have both intonation and language issues; Susana Gaspar consistently sounds more secure in her numbers – moreover her French sounds more natural. Pétrouchka is a particularly charming song. The final item Sur les flots puissants du Volga (Upon the Volga’s Strong Waves) is a superb six-minute mini epic involving both voices; unfortunately Guimarães really struggles here and only sounds comfortable when Gaspar joins him for the final verse.

The photograph on the back of the leaflet depicts the accompanist Nuno Vieira de Almeida, presumably in his student days, with the composer. I have to say that he is the star turn on this disc. While his consummate musicianship throughout a demanding programme reveals a deep understanding of Lopes-Graça’s music, he is also unfailingly responsive to the three singers. The recording is perfectly fine. Notwithstanding my criticisms of some of the singing, this disc contains some beguiling repertoire and anyone who has been impressed by this composer’s large-scale orchestral works will find much to enjoy here. I do hope that Naxos will now turn to Lopes-Graça’s Requiem and even more urgently to his masterpiece, the extraordinary marine cantata História Trágica-Maritima.
Richard Hanlon


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