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Debussy and Villa-Lobos: Cristina Ortiz (piano), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 9.11.2009 (BBr)

Debussy: Suite bergamasque (1890/1895); Deux Arabesques (1888); Estampes(1903); L'isle joyeuse (1904)

Villa-Lobos: Choro No.5: Alma brasileira (1926); A Prole do bebê, Book1 (1918); Valsa da dor (1932); Festa no sertão (Ciclo brasileiro No.3) (1936)

Despite her living in London, we hear precious little of Cristina Ortiz in our concert halls, which is most certainly our loss for she is a vivacious personality, who has a lot to say when it comes to playing the piano and the interpretation of piano music. (See my recent interview with her here.) It is our great good luck then, that we were privileged to hear her tonight in this recital which formed part of the Winter International Piano Series at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Cristina is Brazilian born and in homage to Brazil’s best known composer, Heitor Villa–Lobos, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his death (something that got slightly lost because of the huge number of other anniversaries this year -  200th anniversaries for death of Haydn and the birth of Mendelssohn, the 350th anniversary of Henry Purcell’s birth and the 250th of the death of Handel, not to mention 50th anniversaries of the deaths of  Martinu, Bloch and Antheil as well as James MacMillan's actual 50th birthday)she decided that she should commemorate his work. The coupling of four Villa–Lobos pieces with early music by Debussy proved a very fortuitous choice.


We seldom hear Suite bergamasque and the Deux Arabesques in concert, I suppose because they are considered to be untypical Debussy, and they have next to no virtuoso appeal. But they are delightful pieces and when given such assured performances as they received here they emerge as rather good, and certainly worthy of a concert audience’s attention. The archaic nature of the Suite bergamasque was well captured by Cristina Ortiz, who played the four pieces quite straight, allowing the music to breathe (a favourite word of hers when discussing the interpretation of music), and this, somewhat bluff approach, also  served the final Passepied well  and allowed the famous third piece – Clair de Lune – to glow in its simple beauty.  I say that she played them straight but I must mention that she often used a rubato so subtle and natural that it felt just right, and didn’t, at any time, interfere with the music’s progress. The Deux Arabesques, whilst less important pieces musically, were played with a delicacy and insight which made them seem like special blooms, rather than the page fillers they so often seem to become.

Estampes is one of Debussy’s travelogue pieces: he visits China, Spain and his homeland in three very distinct miniatures. Ms Ortiz was particularly successful in the Soirée dans Grenade, giving the habanera rhythm a special lilt, and the final Jardins sous la pluie positively showered us with the falling rain. L'isle joyeuse was breathtaking in its virtuosity and a restrained approach made the final build to the conclusion all the more exciting and climactic. This was a fine first half.

After the interval we had the four works by Villa–Lobos, who despite living in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s never lost his heritage and composed music of a Brazilian nature all his life. Of course, he’s by no means the dreamer that  Debussy was;  he’s much more in–yer–face, as they say, but he’s also full of the idea of dancin’ in the street, exemplified in the song by William “Mickey” Stevenson and Marvin Gaye:

All we need is music, sweet music
There'll be music everywhere
There'll be swingin', swayin' and records playin'
And dancin' in the streets

And with Villa–Lobos there certainly is much swingin’ and swayin’ in his music.

The audience seemed a trifle confused with Alma brasileira, feeling unsure as to where it ended and Book1 of A Prole do bebê began; however, once that started it couldn’t be mistaken for anything else. This must be one of Villa–Lobos’s best known pieces for Cristina Ortiz recorded it on one of her first LPs (a 1974 performance now available on a 2 CD set devoted to the music of Villa–Lobos; EMI 381 5292) and the eight pieces, although being too similar in tone and setting – the work does lack the distinction and variety of Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite – are most enjoyable, and act as a good an introduction to Villa–Lobos as  any, as indeed, did all the pieces heard tonight. Valsa da dor was very pleasing but it was Festa no sertão that really caught everyone’s attention. This is a real rave of a piece, full of the dance and good times. Ms Ortiz couldn’t have chosen a better conclusion for this recital which was totally enjoyable. It  made us think of some old friends in a different way and introduced us to some pieces with which to become friends.


We were treated to three encores, introduced from the stage. First, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a Brahms Intermezzo in A from op.118, which was full of hope. A brief and energetic Brazilian piece followed – was it by Frutuoso Vianna? - and  to end in memory of the Spanish Catalan pianist Alicia de Larrocha  who died in September, we heard Quejas, ó la Maja y el Ruiseñor (The Maiden and the Nightingale) from the Suite Goyescas (1911) by Enrique Granados.  Here we heard the most sublime playing, with sustained pianissimo and a beauty of line. All in all, a most wonderful recital.


Bob Briggs



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