Heitor Villa-Lobos is probably best known for just a handful
of works; the Bachianas Brasileiras, Chôros,
Momoprecoce and several rather fetching pieces for piano
solo. Adventurous listeners may wish to leave the beaten track
for something more exotic, such as The Forest of the Amazon
for soprano, chorus and orchestra (review)
and the ballets Uirapurú and The Emperor Jones
The latter were a real find, and a reminder that there are still
many sides to this under-rated composer that need to be explored.
Enter Naxos, with their newly announced Villa-Lobos symphony
project, of which this is the first instalment. The São
Paulo Orchestra, based in Brazil’s second city, are led
here by the Brazilian-born conductor Isaac Karabtchevsky. His
bio is impressive, with engagements both at home and abroad;
as for the orchestra - also known by the initials OSESP - they’ve
recorded a number of discs for BIS and Chandos under John Neschling
and Yan Pascal Tortelier respectively. I’ve reviewed several
of them and I have to say I’ve not been terribly impressed.
Their latest offering - Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie
and Symphonische Fantasie aus Die Frau ohne Schatten
with veteran Frank Shipway - was particularly disappointing
The orchestra made their debut at this year’s BBC Proms
under their newly appointed chief Marin Alsop. They’re
certainly a committed and enthusiastic band, and although their
‘New World’ struck me as rather uneven it had some
winning touches. Alsop is a good orchestral trainer, and I suspect
these players will benefit immensely from her tutelage. In the
meantime I’m not convinced these Brazilians have reached
anything near their full potential, although this Villa-Lobos
cycle does look promising - on paper at least.
Speaking of paper, the melodic structure of the Sixth Symphony
is created by plotting the outlines of Brazilian mountains on
a piece of transparent graph paper; Villa-Lobos allocated pitches
to the vertical lines and durations to the horizontal ones.
A rather odd conceit I suppose, but no more unusual a compositional
tool than a pair of dice or a copy of the I Ching. What
of the music itself? All the symphonies - bar the Fifth, which
is lost - have already been recorded by Carl St Clair and the
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, and are bow available in
a single box from CPO. Several of the individual discs have
garnered good reviews here on MWI and elsewhere.
The Sixth Symphony is a curious affair. It starts with a swoony
tune before it builds to a series of restrained peaks; indeed,
reticence seems to be the watchword here, and Villa-Lobos uses
his considerable resources sparingly. The OSESP are in good
form, and the recording is full and warm. The Lento is particularly
haunting. Karabtchevsky draws sounds of surprising subtlety
and nuance from his players; those striding bass-lines are especially
well done, the nicely proportioned climaxes much more clearly
focused than they are in that wayward Strauss recording.
The Allegretto and Allegro of the Sixth are well characterised
and the rhythms of the former are nicely sprung. That said it’s
not the most memorable music, and the end of the Allegro is
somewhat crudely fashioned. Still, Villa-Lobos makes amends
with an imposing finale - the bass drum is thrilling - and Karabtchevsky
keeps this bustling music firmly under control at all times.
It’s certainly a promising start to this cycle, even if
the writing is competent rather than outstanding. No quibbles
about the playing or recording though; both are splendid.
The LSO premiered the huge Seventh Symphony in 1949. As Villa-Lobos
authority Fábio Zanon points out in his lucid liner-notes,
there’s much doubling and tripling here, with two harps,
a piano and a synthesiser thrown in for good measure. What a
magnificent noise they make, the Allegro presented in breathtaking
CinemaScope and vivid Technicolor. The potential for disaster
is pretty high in such a sprawling piece, but Karabtchevsky
keeps up the momentum and allows telling details and timbres
to emerge from the mix. As for the sound it’s very good,
with no hint of fierceness in the treble or diffuseness in the
Once again it’s the Lento that stands out, with poised
playing and lovely sonorities. Despite the vast forces Villa-Lobos
never overplays his hand, although some may feel he doesn’t
hold the best cards here. For all its felicities this movement
outstays its welcome, but the Scherzo comes to the rescue with
feisty and original writing. That said it’s also a tad
prolix, and the closing Allegro strikes me as somewhat opaque.
Not Villa-Lobos at his most inventive perhaps, but there’s
no doubt this conductor, band and recording team give their
all to these symphonies.
Musically uneven but still worth hearing; augurs well for the
rest of this cycle.
see also review by Nick