December 17, 2009


Villa-Lobos: Complete Symphonies; New York Skyline Melody; Ouverture de l’Homme Tel; Suite pour Cordes; Sinfonietta No. 1. Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Carl St. Clair. CPO. $62.99 (7 CDs).

     This release is, despite some oddities, a major event. Oddity No. 1: music with a strong Brazilian flavor performed by a German orchestra led by an American conductor. Oddity No. 2: a peculiar sequence of the music, caused by the fact that this is really a re-release – a repackaging of seven CDs that originally came out separately, one at a time. Oddity No. 3: Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) wrote 12 symphonies, but only 11 are recorded here; yet the set is complete.

     In fact, the oddities are easy enough to explain. No. 1: like his better-known Bachianas brasileiras, Villa-Lobos’ symphonies are far more than “regional” music, and are of high enough quality to deserve performances by top-notch orchestras anywhere – which is exactly what they get here. No. 2: the recordings were made between 1997 and 2000, but the use of the same orchestra and conductor throughout gives the set cohesion despite the rather odd pairings of works on the CDs (Nos. 1 and 11, Nos. 3 and 9, Nos. 4 and 12, etc.). No. 3: one Villa-Lobos symphony – No. 5 – is lost; and this is particularly unfortunate because it was the third part of a triptych relating to World War I.

     So while this may be an imperfect set, it is an excellent and important one, and the best chance listeners are likely to have to consider Villa-Lobos’ symphonic output, since Villa-Lobos symphony cycles are not exactly commonplace in concert halls.

     Villa-Lobos’ symphonies were written between 1916 and 1957, covering a great deal of the musical style of the 20th century, if not its full chronology. All except No. 10 are in the traditional four movements, although the slow movement is sometimes placed second and sometimes third. No.10, Amerindia ("Sumé Pater Patrium") is a five-part oratorio for tenor (Lothar Odinius in this recording), baritone (Henryk Böhm), bass (Jürgen Linn) and chorus (members of the Staatsopernchor Stuttgart and SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart) as well as orchestra.

     There is a significant stylistic break midway through Villa-Lobos’ symphonies, with the early ones (through the lost No. 5) strongly influenced by the work of Vincent d’Indy – after which there is a 24-year hiatus before the appearance of No. 6, which has a stronger Brazilian flavor than the earlier works. No. 7, which also features folklike elements, begins a series in which Villa-Lobos shows himself more willing to adopt a rhythmically complex style and considerably greater use of dissonance.

     All the earlier symphonies, in addition to No. 10, bear subtitles. No. 1 is “O imprevisto” (“The Unforeseen” or “The Unexpected”); No. 2 is “Ascenção “ (“Ascension”); No. 3, the first of the war trilogy, is “A Guerra” (“War”); No. 4 is “A Vitória” (“Victory”); and the lost No. 5 was “A Paz” (“Peace”). No. 6 was a turning point here in addition to being composed two decades after No. 5: it was originally called “Sobre a linha das montanhas do Brasil” (“On the profiles of the mountains of Brazil”), but the title was dropped. Thereafter, except in No. 10, Villa-Lobos ceased to give his symphonies titles, and they increasingly became pure, non-storytelling music. But, interestingly, they were nearly all occasional pieces, written for specific purposes. Villa-Lobos wrote No. 7 for a competition in Detroit – under the pseudonym “A. Caramuru,” a reference to a nickname that Tupinambá Indians give to someone Portuguese. No. 8 is a real oddity, being dedicated to a music critic, Olin Downes of The New York Times; there is very little Brazilian flavor in it. No. 9 was first performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra and is dedicated to the composer’s second wife, Mindinha. No. 11 was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and No. 12 was finished on Villa-Lobos’ 70th birthday. As for No. 10, it was written in 1952 for the 400-year anniversary of Sað Paulo and is based on a poem from 1563 called “Beata Virgine” – yet it retains the basic form of a five-movement symphony despite being structured, in terms of text, as an oratorio.

     So disparate are Villa-Lobos’ symphonies that it is difficult to see them as “progressing” as do those of, say, Beethoven or Brahms. By and large – certainly after the first five symphonies – Villa-Lobos seems to have set himself a different set of challenges in each one, overcoming them according to his compositional style of the time while often (but not always) returning to the Brazilian folk music to which he was attracted throughout his life. Carl St. Clair and Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR approach each of these works with a fresh perspective and a willingness to explore each one’s individualistic artistry thoroughly. The few short filler items – the most notable being the early Sinfonietta No. 1 (1916) and the even earlier, very Tchaikovskian Suite pour Cordes (1912-3) – are interesting bonuses in a set that establishes Villa-Lobos as a major 20th-century symphonist with a strong, if highly variable, musical voice.

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