December 08, 2005


Villa-Lobos: Bachianas Brasileiras (complete). Nashville Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Schermerhorn (Nos. 2-9) and Andrew Mogrelia (No. 1); with Anthony LaMarchina, principal cellist; José Feghali, piano (No. 3); Rosana Lamosa, soprano (No. 5); Erik Gratton, flute, and Cynthia Estill, bassoon (No. 6). Naxos. $23.99 (3 CDs).

     This set is a considerable achievement and a worthy tribute to Kenneth Schermerhorn, who died April 18 after more than 20 years at the helm of the Nashville Symphony.  The Bachianas Brasileiras are a considerable achievement themselves, created by Heitor Villa-Lobos over a 15-year period (1930-1945) as a tribute to Bach and an attempt to meld Bach’s forms and musical purity to the folk tunes and popular culture of 20th-century Brazil.

     It is tempting to see in these works a reflection of the huge, multifaceted country where Villa-Lobos wrote most of them (No. 9 was written in New York).  But they are more a reflection of the composer’s own varied interests in musical development and orchestration than a direct reflection of Brazil as a nation.  Villa-Lobos’ favorite instrument was the cello, and cello parts are prominent in most of these pieces, with No. 1 specifically written for “an orchestra of cellos” and No. 5 – perhaps the composer’s best-known work – for soprano and eight cellos.  Yet Villa-Lobos sought other colorations as well.  No. 6, a fascinating modern version of Bach’s two-part inventions, explores the upper and lower woodwind registers, being written for flute and bassoon.  No. 4 was written for piano, though Villa-Lobos subsequently orchestrated it.  And No. 9 was originally written for unaccompanied chorus.

     The use of movement titles from Bach’s era – along with, in most cases, Brazilian subtitles – is one of the few things uniting these disparate works.  It is possible to analyze the way Villa-Lobos adapted baroque forms to his purposes, but that is a matter for musicologists and adds little to the enjoyment of the pieces.  It is interesting, for example, to know that the first movement of No. 4 alludes to the so-called “Royal Theme” from Bach’s Musical Offering, but one can appreciate and enjoy the music without being aware of this.

     And enjoyment is what this set provides in abundance.  No. 5 and the finale of No. 2 (a toccata known as “Little Train of the Caipira”) are the best-known works here, but there are so many other highlights that a listener is left amazed at how varied the delights of Villa-Lobos are.  No. 1, for example, combines rich unison cello passages with ones exploring the upper reaches of the instrument’s range.  No. 3 is a piano concerto – or perhaps an orchestral sinfonia with piano obbligato – filled with emotion and bird sounds.  No. 4 is remarkably lush and vibrant as an orchestral piece.  The warmth-suffused No. 1, intense and broad-scaled No. 7, virtuosic No. 8 and two-movement No. 9 all end with fugues, each of them quite different in sound and treatment from the others.  There is no particular reason to listen to the Bachianas Brasileiras in numerical order, but there are many reasons to listen to each one of them.  The blending of Bach and Brazil is always fascinating, the music is unusual and effective, and these performances are excellent in every respect.

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