Artist: António Rosado
Composer: Fernando Lopes-Graça
Fernando Lopes-Graça (1906-1994)
The six Piano Sonatas
From the seven sonatas of Bomtempo to the six of Lopes-Graça, no other Portuguese composer has written a cycle of such important works for the piano in this classical form. Even after Lopes-Graça, the only composer closer to the present time who dared to create a similar cycle, is António Victorino D’Almeida (born in 1940, also a pianist), who until now (2004) has already completed seven sonatas. This scarcity, nevertheless, comes as no surprise, since it includes – except for Prokofiev – the whole of the musical twentieth century, either because of the complete rejection of classical forms by many composers, or of their appropriation by other more subtle intentions (the operas Wozzeck, by Alban Berg or The Turn of the Screw, by Benjamin Britten…) or, in short, of the substitution of these by balletic, jazzistic, or neoclassical forms and structures of a baroquian aspect, these last metioned having become popular in the first half of the century as they recuperated preceding forms and structures prior to the Beethovenian sonata, which genre reached its highest peak up until our time (the opposite of a Prokofiev, who wrote five concerts and nine sonatas for piano and seven symphonies). The only collection of importance with regard to the use of classical forms, in Lopes-Graça’s own catalogue, consists in just this collection of six works.
But if it is still early to evaluate the contribution of Victorino D’Almeida concerning the history of the genre, the same cannot be said of Lopes-Graça. All six Sonatas have been available for some years in digital form, and in two of these cases, (the Fifth and Sixth Sonatas) interpreted by Olga Prats and Nella Maissa, to whom these works were dedicated, make of these recordings true historical moments (the other recordings are of Maria da Graça Amado da Cunha and Miguel Henriques).
With the appearance of this double CD of António Rosado, which includes the complete cycle, one witnesses another historical moment which completely justifies the attention of the musicologists in one of the most important moments of the piano works of Lopes-Graça. A reading in their totality of the Sonatas by one sole interpreter with sufficient emotional distance both from the author as well as from the works (which permits a certain analytic interpretative objectivity), with the help of modern and excellent recording conditions (which did not always happen in the past) and master of a powerful technique at the service of a very personal musicality, will certainly shed new light on the pieces and their author.
The piano was for Lopes-Graça, as it was for many others before him, a vehicle of communion with a musical reality, a virtual diary, a source of experimentation (Ao Fio dos Anos e das Horas – Through the Years and the Hours – for example, subtitled “cadernos de um compositor” – a composer’s notebooks – is a real diary, “written” on the keyboard…). Constituted by dozens of works, which are comprised of hundreds of small pieces, this important pianistic “corpus” begins at the age of twenty-one with Variations on a Popular Portuguese Theme, written in 1927, his Opus I, and ends with the Tocata, Andante, and Fugato of 1991, not only his last piece for piano but also the penultimate one of all the works of his catalogue (Lopes-Graça composes a small piece for mixed choir “a capella”, in 1992, and then there is silence).
The six Sonatas include a similar period to that of the rest of his pianistic output, for they extend from 1934, (the composer was only twenty-eight years old) until 1981, when Lopes-Graça had already attained the advanced age of seventy-five, and, therefore, of themselves, can serve as landmarks of the technical and stylistic evolution of their author. They reveal, besides, the musical landmark of excellence, in the waters in which Lopes-Graça moved; in order to prove this statement, let us take a look at the dedications: from an illustrious musicologist (Macário Santiago Kastner), and an enlightened guide, and equally illustrious (D. Elisa de Sousa Pedroso) to the foreign pianists of renown (Hélène Boschi and Georges Bernand) and the Portuguese artists of the finest calibre (Olga Prats and Nella Maissa). If we again consider the list of the first interpreters, some of which are actual persons to whom the works were dedicated, this is no less significant: Helena Moreira de Sá e Costa, Hélène Boschi, Georges Bernand, Olga Prats and Nella Maissa, demonstrating the growing habit of Lopes-Graça to dedicate specific works to specific interpreters, who will later make known the work at the first hearing and, at times, even in a discographic register.
It is important to note that, notwithstanding the long period of time that they span and the stylistic evolutions that they denote, the six Sonatas are indubitably, the work of the same artist, whose voice was always and immediately distinguishable. The diverse influences that he experienced during the course of his life, some of which are still to be studied and to be discovered (not only those of Bartók, Stravinsky or Falla, but also those of Ravel, Janácék and Szymanowsky and, in the classical field, those of Bach, Beethoven and Chopin), only contributed so that the “style” of Lopes-Graça became unmistakable and unique. All six Sonatas show, however, within their unity, a notable diversity of musical gestures and textures, of the number and style of the movements, and also the proteiform musical structures, that make them very interesting as the object of an intellectual study, although Lopes-Graça never used a specific technique unless behind it there came, as a cause and not as a consequence, a certain and imperative musical intention.
The already-mentioned diversity is accompanied by an evident stylistic and technical evolution, that is also reflected in the scope of the work. If the First and the Second Sonatas (composed in 1934 and 1939 respectively, to initiate a phase of preoccupation with traditional but constructivistic forms and genres: the symphony, the concerto and the sonata) reveal, here and there, a certain neoclassical facet (namely the Second, the only one to have a key signature that puts it unequivocally in D Major, being significant, the dedication to Macário Santiago Kastner, the musicologist specialized in ancient piano music) and Iberiam folk music, there already exists between them a clear difference in time, no doubt, justified by an increasing conceptual complexity. We pass from some scarce 10’ to 16’, although the neo-baroquian format in three movements, fast-slow-fast is maintained.
The turning point is attained, unequivocally, in the Third Sonata, written in a series of kaleidoscopic movements – played without interruption – and which last more than twenty minutes. With this Third Sonata, the most “Bartókian” of all, the full maturity of Lopes-Graça is affirmed from the very first measures through a primeval and implacable energy, that culminates in the jubilant fugue almost at the end and closes in 1952, the first glorious chapter in the series, being significantly, important, that with it, Lopes-Graça won, in the same year, the Composition Prize of the Círculo de Cultura Musical. The decade of the fifties and the beginning of the sixties is also the most productive epoch of the pianistic output of the composer: he wrote one hundred and fifty more works, single or in cycles.
The Fourth Sonata (1961) which is approximately the same length as the Second, represents, after a fashion, the doubts and consequent experiments which established in the composer a transition to the sixties, at the same time that a certain formal “decline” (namely when compared to the resounding Third) with its four “symphonic” movements: fast-slow-fast-fast, that, notwithstanding, will return to shape the last works of the cycle. It is well known that Lopes-Graça did not appreciate the Fourth Sonata, until he heard, at the end of his life, an interpretation at a concert given by Miguel Henriques. At that time, he appears to have altered his opinion with regard to this work, which is, according to my point of view, considering its ambiguous and enigmatic history, one of the most interesting, already pointing to the final sonatas, as though he were rehearsing for them. His apogee will come only after the evanescent Fourth Sonata, although sixteen years still had to transpire before the next work of the cycle saw the light of day.
The Fifth and Sixth Sonatas (1977 and 1981) represent and culminate in yet another creative phase, characterized by the maturity and crystallization of the creative processes. The structure of the works becomes dramatically complex, the harmonic ambiguity is greater than ever and the pianistic writing tends toward a density approaching a Schoenberg or a Szymanowsky, with few or no evident signs of the neoclassicism of the first works, or of Iberian folklore, always present until the sixties. An important and stylistic influence is especially accentuated, which was already heard in the Third Sonata: that of the late music of Beethoven. This becomes evident in the Fifth Sonata by the extraordinary series of nineteen small movements played in succession (again the dizzy kaleidoscopic aspect of the form, already mentioned in the commentary of the Third Sonata, in a wide structure of two parts, that recollects the form of the last Quartets of the master of Bonn, and in the Sixth Sonata, the last (and the longest of all also, lasting 25’) in the form of a surprising citation of thematic material – and the respective tonal relation (alternating between the two polar notes, Do and Mi) – of the first movement of the Waldstein Sonata in the form of four movements, with two of them played “attacca” (all of a sudden), and again by the constant transferences of thematic material from one movement to another.
Such a clear allusion to another composer already happened before, at the end of the First Sonata, which copies, enhancing his harmonic avant gardism, the almost atonal “presto” of Chopin’s Sonata in B minor (another of the elect). If, by this aspect, we analyse the cycle of the six Sonatas of Lopes-Graça, we can almost speak of a dialectical path, which starts with a sombre atmosphere (a tie to death in the already cited work of Chopin is evident) to culminate in the olympian humanism of the last Beethoven. Is it also a reaction based on the evolution of Portuguese politics of this century, from fascism beginning in 1926, to democracy in 1974? Knowing Graça, it seems very possible to me and even an hypothesis to consider in the interpretation of these odd and fascinating works. The general impression aims constantly at the future since the music of Lopes-Graça is never completely innocent or playful, and still less, frivolous. There lies its permanent restlessness, even in moments of greater jubilation.
Considering all that has been said, it becomes evident that the Sonatas demand an interpreter who approaches them in their totality with the utmost technique, musicality and maturity. Lopes-Graça, as Bartók before him, knew how to write music that is not difficult (primarily for children) when he so wished, but his attitude before art and life finds parallels in the attitudes of Bartók and Beethoven, perhaps the composers he most admired and emulated, being demanding of themselves and therefore also being demanding of others, and of a society which saw his music being born. In this particular and contrary to many other works of the composer, deliberately simple and direct (as in the harmonizations of popular songs or in the already cited didactic music), the six Sonatas and, in particular, the last two, represent the most evident facet of an art, at times austere and difficult, that does not reveal its secrets without a certain effort, inseparable from any humam demands in search of the Grail that is an ever elusive Beauty.
But, also, such as in the most contrary and enthusiastic dancing crowds, in the hopes of fleeting and immediate pleasure (and without improper comparisons that would make Graça himself apostrophize me vehemently!) many are the spiritual rewards that await those who attain, on the steep path, the Light.
© Sérgio Azevedo, 2004