Classical CD Reviews

FERNANDO LOPES-GRAÇA: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 – Eldar Nebolsin, p. /Orquestra Sinfónico do Porto – Casa da Música/ Matthias Bamert – Naxos

I’ll take the more fun-loving First Concerto over the Second, but none of this music is of the first order.

Published on September 11, 2013

FERNANDO LOPES-GRAÇA: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 – Eldar Nebolsin, p. /Orquestra Sinfónico do Porto – Casa da Música/ Matthias Bamert – Naxos

FERNANDO LOPES-GRAÇA: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2 – Eldar Nebolsin, piano / Orquestra Sinfónico do Porto – Casa da Música/ Matthias Bamert – Naxos 8.572817, 55:03 ***:

As with so many almost forgotten nationalist composers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Naxos label has committed to recording the music of Portuguese masters who seem to get short shrift simply because they come from that “other” country on the Iberian peninsula. Having brought us all the symphonies of Luis de Freitas Branco and Joly Braga Santos, the folks at Naxos are now turning their attention to Freitas Branco’s student Fernando Lopes-Graça (1906–1994), whose quest for a contemporary Portuguese national style brought him closer to the major influences of musical modernism, in particular Béla Bartók.

Like Bartók, Lopes-Graça sought to internalize folkloric elements in an essentially modernist style though, as the notes to this recording make clear, his route to that end also embraced neo-Baroque gestures, plus a decidedly more sweeping Romantic style. A case in point is the first movement of Concerto No. 1 (1940), which along with the insistent rhythmic drive, built on ostinato figures, recalls Bartók, there are moments of a perfumed Romanticism that recall Manuel de Falla. It’s a rich tapestry that’s given even greater contrast when compared to the neo-Baroque overtones of the last movement, which Ivan Moody relates directly to Lopes-Graça’s study of Baroque composers working in Portugal, including Scarlatti and Carlos Seixas. Moody speaks of the movement’s “toccata-like writing. . .couched in a bittersweet harmonic language, which nevertheless conveys an airy cheerfulness,” but there’s also an air of ironic parody that makes the movement even more interesting. It begins with a tipsy Latin dance, accompanied by castanets, triangle, and snare drum, seconded by tart, dissonant asides from the winds. The “toccata-like” flourishes provided by the piano are decidedly off-kilter as well, and the whole leaves an impression of a good-natured skewering of traditional Latin musical gestures.

The Second Concerto, composed in 1950 and revised in 1952 and 1971, is an altogether more serious work with a somewhat greater sense of stylistic integrity. The first movement has the same kind of rhythmic restlessness as that of Concerto No. 1, but the quieter episodes bring no contrasting relief, and the atmosphere is one of questioning and unease. Release of a sort comes in the second movement Andante con moto, subtitled Evocação de Ravel. However, the Ravel that Lopes-Graça evokes is not so much a musical Impressionist as a musical Pointillist. There’s a fragmentary, dream-like quality to the movement’s hesitantly swaying 5/4 rhythm. At one point, however—a passage where the piano delivers a series of long trills over quiet, slightly eerie winds and strings—I’m reminded of the slow movement of Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto. But the impression is fleeting.

Again, the finale is less intense than what went before, and once more there’s an element of parody in the music as it struts along in a bumptious march rhythm. Still, as with the rest of the concerto, a feeling of unease seems to lurk behind even the more lighthearted moments.

I’m not sure the Second Concerto, even given the revisions that supposedly benefit from Lopes-Graça’s greater assurance as a composer, represents an advance on the First. There’s more attractive local color in the First, and the finale, though somewhat lightweight, is more entertaining. I’m pretty sure I won’t return as often to the Second Concerto as to the First.

Perhaps the contributions from Orquestra Sinfónico do Porto – Casa da Música could have been a bit more authoritative; some of the playing is rather tentative. However, Eldar Nebolsin gives a very good account of himself at the keyboard. His playing is crisp, bright, rhythmically atuned. Fine sound as well. But even with finer work from the orchestra, I doubt this music would make a great impression.

—Lee Passarella

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