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Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959)
Complete Symphonies
Symphonies 1-4 & 6-12
Uirapuru (1917) [19.16]
Mandu-Çarará (1940)* [13.36]
Leonardo Neiva (baritone), Saulo Javan (bass)
São Paulo Symphony Choir & Children’s Choir*
São Paulo Symphony Orchestra/Isaac Karabtchevsky
rec. 2011-17, Sala São Paulo, Brazil
NAXOS 8.506039 [6 CDs: 399:07]

Over the years the gramophone has done rather well by the music of Heitor Villa-Lobos. In the decade before his death French EMI invited him to Paris to set down on record a whole parcel of orchestral scores from his massive output, and the resulting multi-disc album was reissued on CD (no longer available, although a single disc including the best-selling ‘hit’ item from those sessions in the shape of Victoria de los Angeles in the Bachianas Brasilieras No 5 remains in the catalogues after some sixty years). Also during the early days of CD, we had multi-disc sets of the piano concertos from Decca and the complete Bachianas Brasilieras from EMI (the latter now reissued on Warner Classics). But it was Marco Polo and its bargain sister label Naxos who provided the most enterprising selection of the musical of the Brazilian master, with complete sets of the string quartets, the complete piano music and guitar manuscripts as well as discs of orchestral and film music much of which had been previously completely neglected – and more recently rival sets of the complete Bachianas Brasilieras and the symphonies included in this newly collected box.

The symphonies here are in the more than capable hands of the São Paolo orchestra, who already have to their credit a seven-disc BIS box comprising the Bachianas Brasilieras (again) as well as the complete set of Chôros, scored for forces ranging from solo guitar to gigantic choral and orchestral assemblages. Here we are given eleven of the twelve numbered symphonies (I will return to the vexed question of the missing Fifth later) in a set which parallels an earlier (1997-2000) compilation under the baton of Carl St Clair with the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra on the enterprising CPO label. There have also been a number of recordings, including some directed by the composer himself, of individual symphonies in the cycle. Being somewhat of a Villa-Lobos enthusiast, I have assembled over the years a miscellaneous collection of recordings from various sources and performers; but there is obviously a major advantage in having a complete set under a single interpreter who can survey the whole of the composer’s discursive symphonic development in one sweep.

And this set also has one very major advantage over all its predecessors. I suspect that many listeners would be horrified to learn how many errors creep into a composer’s supposedly authoritative scores, either as the result of simple mistakes by the composer or transcription errors by later copyists and editors. The original published score of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had to be withdrawn and re-engraved to correct a host of slips of one kind or another; the older published score of Holst’s Planets had to be carefully re-edited to insert a whole raft of missing dynamic indications and other omissions which had arisen when the composer entrusted the copying out of his score to various pupils; and when Solti was recording Wagner in Vienna in 1958 he discovered a copyists’ error in the handwritten double bass parts for Walküre which had gone unnoticed during nearly a century of performances. But while other composers may have permitted minor errors to slip through, Villa-Lobos was positively cavalier about such matters. It appears that he rarely read printers’ proof copies of published works; he does not seem to have delegated any trusted editor to check his manuscript copies; and he does not always seem to have noticed errors in performance either – his 1950s recordings in Paris contain a whole plethora of instances where the orchestra seem to be going awry, possibly by genuine accident but also possibly because they were simply sight-reading the notes on the page that were actually in front of them. This attitude of the composer throws an enormous amount of weight and responsibility onto the shoulders of his interpreters, and under the expense and time pressure of orchestral rehearsals it is not surprising that a good many mistakes of one kind or another will slip through. It is therefore especially welcome that, in conjunction with the recording of this new cycle of the symphonies, the orchestra have commissioned a complete new edition of the scores themselves, carefully checking the written notes against the composer’s intentions (or presumed intentions). This may eliminate one or two of the more startling orchestral harmonies, but at least it does give the listener some assurance that the many innovative sounds which we hear were indeed intended by Villa-Lobos and are not simply accidental.

Not that there are so many startling innovations in the first two symphonies of Villa-Lobos’s cycle, here helpfully coupled on the first CD. The St Clair cycle on CPO combined earlier and later works onto single discs; Naxos, by adopting a chronological order, help the listener to appreciate the composer’s developmental processes over a long career. Both of the first two symphonies are quite formal in construction – not classically so, in the manner that might have been expected in Villa-Lobos’s ‘neo-classical’ later days, but adopting the cyclical procedures of Franck as reflected through the work and teachings of Vincent d’Indy (whose books had done much to shape the Brazilian’s early style). There is already an exotic atmosphere present in this music, but it is firmly controlled within the expectations of the term symphony. In his other early works written at this time Villa-Lobos was already becoming highly experimental in his handling of both his material and his textures, and in his later symphonies these tendencies would be allowed to explode; but in these symphonies we get the slight feeling that he is slightly over-awed by his own temerity in challenging the Europeans on their own symphonic turf, and indeed slightly intimidated by potential comparison. It does not appear, indeed, that he ever heard a professional performance of either of these symphonies until much later in his career, when he took the opportunity to make amendments to the original score of the Second. Never mind, the results are still highly enjoyable on their own terms, and the dance rhythms in the faster sections are infectious. In his review of the original issue for this site (review) Bob Stevenson seems to have been rather less impressed.

While the first two symphonies seem to have been written primarily for Villa-Lobos’s own pleasure, the impetus behind his third and fourth symphonies – and the projected and aborted fifth – seems, on the other hand, to have been largely mercenary. The impecunious and penniless composer was commissioned by the Brazilian government to write a whole massive trilogy of symphonies to commemorate the First World War (which they had joined in 1917). He took up the proffered cash with enthusiasm, and produced two parts of the commissioned trilogy in short order under the titles War and Victory. There he stalled, and the third segment Peace – the projected fifth symphony – never materialised. It is unclear whether it was written and lost, or indeed whether it was ever written at all. Presumably Villa-Lobos got paid for it; but, at all events, at that point in his career he seems to have lost interest in composing symphonies altogether. When he returned to the form some quarter of a century later, he dubbed his next work in the genre his sixth. Maybe he hoped to avoid any awkward questions from the government about the whereabouts of their commissioned but non-existent fifth, or maybe it had genuinely been lost during the intervening years (Villa-Lobos’s cavalier attitude towards proof-reading his printed copies extended towards keeping track of their whereabouts).

The remaining parts of the war trilogy are, as one might expect, quite programmatic in intent. Villa-Lobos always had a particular facility for writing descriptive music (think of his picturesque little train of the Caipira in Bachianas Brasilieras No 2) and in the third and fourth symphonies this facility is given full freedom. For some reason the original issue never seems to have been reviewed by this site, but I found these two symphonies – which I only previously knew from the recordings in the St Clair cycle on CPO – a curious mixture of the naïvely picturesque (with plentiful citations of patriotic anthems) and the rather splendidly grandiose. Of all the Villa-Lobos symphonies the Fourth is probably the best-known, if only because the composer included a recording in his Paris sessions; but both St Clair and Karabtchevsky give the work a much better and more secure performance.

After a long break during which Villa-Lobos extensive explored the Brazilian side of his heritage, the Sixth Symphony heralded a new degree of concern with formal design. Indeed, the design was extremely formal since the melodic outlines were directly derived from a tracing of a mountain skyline from his native country. At least, that is what the composer claimed, although no evidence of the exact skyline involved has ever emerged and one suspects that some degree of subtle alteration or interpretation on the part of the viewing composer has been involved. This technique, which has found more recent imitators, appears to have originated with Villa-Lobos and was used by him for educational purposes to challenge his pupils. I must admit that the whole procedure strikes me as highly mechanical, far more so than the supposed intellectual rigour of strict serialism as practiced by the Second Viennese School and their successors. There are plenty of elements which attract the attention here, but these seem to originate despite the compositional techniques employed rather than as an inevitable result of the craggy melodic lines. As a symphonic construction, the Sixth is best viewed as a far from wholly successful experiment which the composer clearly never felt impelled to repeat or expand upon. In their reviews for this site, neither Nick Barnard (review) nor Dan Morgan (review) were over-enthusiastic about the work.

The Seventh, on the other hand, is a wild riot of Amazonian luxuriance where the structural considerations of the symphonic form seem to be jettisoned almost entirely. The orchestra employed is huge, and it is treated with the maximum virtuosity. This seems almost to be the culmination of Villa-Lobos’s exotic scores which caused so much excitement in European progressive circles during the 1920s and 1930s. Again I note that, at the time of the original release, both Nick Barnard and Dan Morgan agreed that the work was a thoroughly worthwhile listen.

By comparison the Eighth and Ninth symphonies seem positively circumspect, their neo-classical style reflecting current European fashion but with less flair than in the Bachianas Brasilieras which represent the culmination of Villa-Lobos’s tribute to the European tradition. The most impressive sections are those where the composer seems to forget his formal obligations in writing a symphony and to revert to his more extravagant Brazilian style. It was at this period in his career that the increasingly fashionable Villa-Lobos found himself in conflict with Stravinsky, whose own neo-classical period was then at its height. The Brazilian sought, rather foolishly, to deny his clear indebtedness to Stravinsky, and the latter responded by the typically acid comment that nearly all the bad music he was hearing in America in the 1940s seemed to be by Villa-Lobos. It was perhaps for this reason that Villa-Lobos took the somewhat unusual step of dedicating his Ninth to the New York critic Olin Downes; the latter responded with a favourable notice, but this does not seem to have been reflected by his fellow-reviewers. In his review of the original issue Rob Barnett was polite (review) but John Whitmore (review) found the experience “hollow”. In the Tenth Symphony Villa-Lobos decidedly threw over any elements of symphonic rectitude in a work which combines elements of oratorio, cantata and folk opera with reckless abandon which I am sure must have startled Mr Downes.

I reviewed the CD containing the Tenth Symphony when it was originally issued back in 2015 (review) when I described it as “great fun, a sort of gargantuan Brazilian riposte to Mahler’s choral ‘symphony of a thousand’” and commented that “the sheer power of the composer’s exuberance and his clear enjoyment of his material have an infectious quality that never leaves the listener bored or uninterested.” John Whitmore, also writing for this site (review), was much less impressed: “a most unconvincing work sounding for all the world like a composer trying too hard to be dramatic and imposing. The end-result is a brilliantly orchestrated, exuberant and spectacular sixty minutes that doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s like eating a massive feast that doesn’t taste of anything. I feel the same way about the music of Khachaturian, Lloyd and Hovhaness so if you like any or all of these composers you will almost certainly get some pleasure from this disc.” Well, I do like the music of Lloyd and Hovhaness (and even Khachaturian in places), so clearly we must agree to disagree and I will confine myself to reiterating my 2015 comment about “uncomprehending critics” at the Paris première back in 1956. The performance here is excellent, and is enhanced by the provision of texts and translations. Incidentally, this box contains all of the comprehensive and informative original booklet notes by Fábio Zanon.

The final CD contains the last symphony (the Eleventh is presented out of order on the fourth disc), and both are much smaller-scale works again commissioned by American orchestras. And once again, we have extended sections of striking originality contrasted with sections of what with the best will in the world one can only describe as neo-classical ‘filling’. At the time of the original issue Stuart Sillitoe (review) was more impressed, describing the writing as “very enjoyable and rewarding”.

This final disc also contains two ‘fillers’ in the shape of the orchestral Uirapuru and the choral Mandu-Çarará from some twenty years later. Fábio Zanon suggests that, despite its ostensibly early date, Uirapuru was subjected by the composer to some comprehensive revision before its 1935 première which would imply that the originality of the scoring might not be as surprising as previously assumed (the work is probably better-known than any of the symphonies). It is nonetheless a pleasure to encounter a piece that fizzes with novelty and sparkle, and one can easily understand why the score attracted the interest and advocacy of Stokowski. The lushness of the Brazilian forest is similarly reflected in the practically unknown Mandu-Çarará where the children’s and adults’ voices in the choir are superbly contrasted in this recording. Both here and in the Tenth Symphony Naxos provide us with full texts in the original languages together with appropriate translations.

As will be gathered from the disparate reviews garnered on these pages at the time of the original issues, the music of Villa-Lobos continues to divide critical opinion. There are certainly occasions when the composer can be long-winded to the point of boredom, or simply seem to run out of ideas; but that is perhaps not so surprising when one considers the enormous output of music that he produced during his life. And when he gets the bit between his teeth (and in every one of these symphonies there is a point at which that happens) the result can knock the listener sideways. I found the pioneering St Clair cycle on CPO excellent both in terms of performance and recording; those Villa-Lobos enthusiasts who already have those discs will certainly find them more than satisfactory. For newcomers to these symphonies (which will be the overwhelming majority) these Naxos accounts, in their spruced-up new editions, will now become the first port of call. Those who like Villa-Lobos in the Bachianas Brasilieras should certainly sample his symphonic works, and this box provides an ideal opportunity to do so.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Symphonies: No 1 (1916) [26:49], No 2 (1917, revised 1944) [48:37], No 3 (1919) [31:46], No 4 (1919) [3:23], No 6 (1944) [28:49], No 7 (1945) [39:28], No 8 (1950) [24:16], No 9 (1952) [21:54], No 10* (1954) [60:47], No 11 (1955) [27:33], No 12 (1957) [34:50]

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