Lopes-Graca: Complete Works for Violin and Piano (CD review)

Bruno Monteiro, violin; Joao Paulo Santos, piano. Naxos 9.70177.

Fernando Lopes-Graca is not exactly a household name. At least not in America. But in his native Portugal, it is a little different, where people know the composer, conductor and musicologist a little better. Still, if violinist Bruno Monteiro has anything to say about it, and if the magic of sound recordings continues to spread Lopes-Graca's music throughout the world (I count sixteen albums of his material at Amazon), maybe he will someday indeed become a household name.

According to his biography, Lopes-Graca (1906-1994) "initiated his music career at the age of fourteen as a pianist at the Cine-Teatro, Tomar. He attended the Lisbon National Conservatory, where he studied with Adriano Meira and Vianna da Motta (piano) and Tomás Borba and Luís de Freitas Branco (composition and musical science). He concluded higher studies in music composition in 1931, with the highest possible score. As a result of opposing the regime (of Portugal's ultraconservative, dictatorial, and repressive Estada Novo), he was arrested, banished to Alpiarça and denied the right to use the scholarship he had been awarded to move to and study in Paris. Nonetheless, he departed at his own expense, furthering his knowledge with Koechlin. Being the author of a vast literary work on Portuguese music, he was a pioneer in the study and research of Portuguese folk music."

Much of Lopes-Graca's music is already on disc, and now fellow Portuguese musician Bruno Monteiro brings us the composer's complete works for violin and solo piano on this Naxos CD. Monteiro himself is one of Portugal's leading violinists, performing as a recitalist, concerto soloist, and chamber musician in all the major musical centers of the country and internationally, including the U.S. (Carnegie Hall). With a number of recordings to his credit, Monteiro brings his considerable talents to bear in these violin and piano pieces, which well illustrate the composer's dedication to traditional Portuguese folk music as well as his independent spirit and his desire to promote contemporary music.

There are nine works on the disc, spanning a significant amount of time in Lopes-Graca's life, from the early Sonatinos of the 1930's to the Adagio Doloroso e Fantasia of 1988. The program gives us a pretty good idea of what the composer was up to in his musical lifetime, and both violinist Monteiro and piano accompanist Joao Paulo Santos show the composer an appropriate degree of enthusiasm.

Let me just provide a few examples of my reactions to the disc's works, starting with the early music, to give you the idea of what it's all about.

Starting the agenda is the Sonatina No. 1, Op. 10, which Lopes-Graca wrote in 1931 but didn't premiere until 1947. Maybe its conciseness (four very brief movements) and unforgiving objectivity were a bit too much for many listeners to accept, or maybe the rigidity of the conservative government's restraints put a damper on things. In any case, the piece begins with a Moderato movement that presents two contrasting themes, both a touch melancholy. The Lento non troppo that follows carries on this mood, with the violin and piano embroidering the parts. The third-movement Scherzando displays a lyrical grace, with some attractively resilient rhythms. Then, the piece ends with a moderately paced Allegro non troppo, the piano and violin exchanging pleasantries in a final, clever dialogue. Although I had never heard it before, Monteiro and Santos play it so affectionately, so enchantingly, I look forward to hearing them play it again.

Another work I look forward to listening to again is the Preludio, Capricho e Galope, Op. 33, whose title also names its three movements. As the names suggest, the music comprises a number of lilting, folk-dance melodies, though filtered through a twentieth-century sensibility (Lopes-Graca composed it in 1941). The rhythmic thrust is everywhere evident, and Monteiro's technical skills on the violin sound impressive. The closing Galope will seem particularly familiar, yet the composer and soloist invest it with a freshness all their own.

Possibly the most openly beautiful and accessible musical works on the disc are the Trois Pieces for violin and piano, Op. 118, from 1959. These are the most songlike pieces we find on the program, especially the first movement, with the violin singing the primary role. By its conclusion the melodies have gone from fairly conventional to a bit more adventurous, but the risks are worth the listen. Monteiro and Santos take us on a sensuous yet heady expedition into a kind of Romantic modernism.

The last item on the program is Lopes-Graca's Adagio doloroso e Fantasia, Op. 242, from 1988. As its title implies, it's a work expressive of great sorrow, with Monteiro's violin crying out in mournful lamentation, the piano giving support and consolation. The concluding Fantasia section is more complex, more thrusting, more contrasting, yet unexpectedly comforting, too.

Music entirely new to me doesn't always hold great appeal for me, and I often understand after hearing it just why I had never heard it or wanted to hear it before. Yet with Lopes-Graca in the capable hands of Monteiro and Santos, I found myself captivated throughout most of the album. Even if I thought some of the music a bit too repetitive or static for my taste, the exploration was well worth the trip.

Bruno Monteiro produced and Jose Fortes engineered and edited the album, recording it at Igreja da Cartuxa, Caxias, Portugal in November 2012. The instruments ring out loud and clear, the two soloists in good balance, if a tad close. The sound is always smooth and natural, never hard or edgy, thanks not only to the miking but to the very slight, warm resonant bloom imparted no doubt by the recording venue.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa